"Dog, Mode of Heat Transfer in Barking"
|Cover of the illustrated edition, 2013|
Easily the oddest, most otherworldly (and this is not fantasy or science fiction) and original volume of what seem like an alien's owners manual disguised as short short "stories" I've ever read, The Age of Wire and String (1995), the debut collection from Ben Marcus. The quote above is quoted complete -- is it story?, conceptual experiment?, pastiche?, acid trip?, all or none of the above? -- that opens the "ANIMAL" section of the book.
Other instruction manual-like sections of the book include:
At the end of each section are Terms, in which Marcus defines the preceding chapter's extraterrestrial language. In THE SOCIETY section, for instance, we learn that "AGE OF WIRE AND STRING, THE" means "Period in which English science devised abstract parlance system based on the flutter pattern of string and wire structures placed over the mouth during speech." Well, duh, right? The definition does reveal (maybe) Marcus' purpose in writing the book: his creation of a new and abstract language based on ... vibrations, vocalizations under study in some linguistic science lab somewhere.
Other evocative story titles, interesting in and of themselves, regardless of their contents fully-realized surreaity, include:
"Snoring, Accidental Speech," from the SLEEP section;
"Ethics of Listening When Visiting Areas That Contain Him," from GOD;
"The Food Costumes of Montana," from FOOD;
"Exporting the Inner Man," from THE HOUSE;
"The Weather Killer," from WEATHER;
"Leg of Brother Who Died Early," from PERSONS; and,
"Swimming, Strictly an Inscription," from THE SOCIETY.
The Age of Wire and String strips some preconceived perceptions of what storytelling is and can be, bare (at least it does for me), as it vividly reinvents narrative reality in every strange tale, and translates its invented language into a linguistic universe previously unheard. It's a weird and wild and wonderful and intensely imaginative reading experience, even as it purposely frustrates the most intrepid reader's interpretation and comprehension. I found upon second reading, when I approached the difficult vignettes as prose poems not all that dissimilar in style and tone and symbolism to Arthur Rimbaud's Illuminations, my frustration with the author -- most of it anyway -- immediately ameliorated, and my appreciation for the craftiness of Ben Marcus swooned.