January 27, 2013


by Ben Marcus
140 pages, Dalkey Archive

Review by Marc Nash

The age of wire and string. Conjures up an image of an art exhibit of found objects threaded together by, well wire and string. You walk around the 'sculpture' in a three hundred and sixty degree circle trying to capture all its textures and perspectives, struggling to see the meaning, wondering if you've missed anything in its very refusal to speak to you. A bit like reading this book in many ways.

For you can let the words and language here wash over you as if you are in a wondrous hot tub, having the lexemes lick at your skin and gently massage the subcutaneous tissue. Or you can begin to feel mounting paranoia of the relentless jets of bubbled water buffeting and barraging you as if trying to dissolve you entirely. Depending on your temperament and predilection, this book will either offer you up its delights, or have you hurling against the wall. I can't take responsibility for this review ensuring the happier of two said outcomes.

The book presents itself as some kind of alien report on human culture. But either the alien intelligence can't quite penetrate the connections between things and the relationship of cause and effect; or they can, but are stymied by the structure of their language and ability to organise their observations using our foreign terms. So what you get here is a series of conflations, whereby images are ripped from their familiar frameworks and soldered together with something rather discordant. So for example, the opening chapter conflates sex and resuscitation of a dead wife with powering up household devices such as toasters. Food is treated as an outcrop of textiles, so that a map drawn upon an animal’s kin supposedly indicates the points at which food can be located according to the very grain of the animal pelt. Which is close to the truth but not quite nailing it. God is conflated with the weather, which again is not so wide of the mark when you consider early religious pantheons. The enunciation of names equates to generation of actual power, which again is a wonky version of what was once believed by mankind. Elsewhere the words we speak, when not construed as formed by the reverberations of wire and string draped across the mouth, are also conflated with weather systems. Tattoos are contraband ways of smuggling films on the skin, which again a tattoo could be read as a cartoon still but also is so wide of the mark.

There is no code here to be penetrated I think. That's why you either just go with it and let the words lap you like an incoming tide, or you blow your brains out at the exasperation of it all. Yet there is an increasing narrative legibility. By two-words of the way through, our non-human observer is able to string together coherent sentences that follow one after another in a logical fashion, even if the internal content of each sentence is still jumbling up its connections and images. The observer is moving towards narrative, towards putting together a block of story-relating text by the penultimate chapter. It's very sly indeed. However for me, the biggest reward was in reading the glossary of terms after each section - just as jumbled up, but a boiled down pith of what Marcus is doing here throughout. In a way, this book could easily have just been the glossaries and it would still have yielded the same amount of recoverable meaning. Some of the 'definitions' were an absolute delight. Whole microworlds of superstitious belief and metaphysics contained in so few words. Indeed there are times when sections of the text read as abstract and abstruse as a religious enchiridion.

So ultimately what is this book for? By which I mean is it worth the read? Well apart from the uniqueness of the experience, I think it possesses a validity in what it does with language if you're interested in that sort of thing. It's noteworthy that the book is short enough not to drag in its opaqueness. Here are our own logics reflected and refracted back to us through this text, showing us up to be absurdly non-rational beings in our habits, practises and behaviour. This is how alien we must seem to a, well to an alien. Ben Marcus has pulled off the not insubstantial feat of being a human writing about seeing humans from a non-human perspective. The aliens have assimilated our lexicon and basic rules of grammar, yet they are producing virtual nonsense text in order to set down their analysis of us. Our language lets them down. Possibly because it seems alien to them with all its subtle shades and ellipses, that is you need to be human to use our language correctly. Or else the language itself is so self-reflexive, that for all millennium of effort, it remains a poor tool for examining and casting light on ourselves, let alone its opacity to a different species.

Heady stuff. Over to you now. Look into, well not your soul, but your central processing chip and decide if you want to spare the necessary RAM to fence with this book.

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