It had better be big

Daniel Soar

  • Notable American Women by Ben Marcus
    Vintage, 243 pp, US $12.50, March 2002, ISBN 0 375 71378 6
  • Assorted Fire Events by David Means
    Fourth Estate, 165 pp, £10.00, March 2002, ISBN 0 00 713506 8

In an exam I once took we were presented with a passage that began: ‘To see the wind, with a man his eyes, it is impossible, the nature of it is so fine.’ I found that sentence so distractingly meaningless, and lovely, that it was hard to concentrate on the rest of the passage, which (much more comprehensibly) described a snowy field over which a light wind was blowing; tiny particles of snow were picked up by the wind and carried short distances in complicated patterns, so that the way the wind blew was suddenly visible, in the same way that dye in water makes visible the flow of hidden currents. Part of the test was, supposedly, to determine when the passage would have been written, and by whom, to contextualise it without external clues. Was this deliberately distorted language, newly written? I had no idea; mesmerised by that sentence, I panicked. Years later, I discovered that the source was Roger Ascham’s Toxophilus (1545), ostensibly a book about the pleasures of archery. Ascham was a schoolmaster. His mission, he felt, was to make writing accessible for an audience that knew little Latin but longed to be educated. Now that everything is available on the Internet, the passage appears online in multiple past papers on university websites from Florida to Michigan. In order to test the ability of the must-be-educated to find the context, examiners clearly study other exam papers and transplant words from one contextless context into another, copying also the (deliberately?) misleading modernised spelling that makes you read the words the wrong way. The passage’s original purpose – to be understood – seems to be lost on those setting the tests. But perhaps it had lost its context in any case: as a record of a moment during a walk from one parish to the next, it seems to belong to a class of Romantic epiphanies; there is nothing like it in the writing of its own time. It should have been less Wordsworthian; it’s unclassifiable.

It doesn’t take much to stop seeing through words to their meaning. With a sentence like Ascham’s, the sound gets in the way. Words don’t always say what they’re meant to. I like the sign at the foot of escalators that reads: ‘Dogs must be carried.’ (‘Quick! Must find a dog.’) I understand the pleasure of footnotes and parentheses. In certain states of mind – distracted, tired – the sound of words means more than their content; there are reassuring rhythms. I bought Ben Marcus’s first book, The Age of Wire and String, in a remainder shop soon after it was published, without knowing what kind of thing it was. I liked the way it sounded:

Certain weather is not recognised by the land it is practised on; funnel clouds necessarily unravel or bank off any crusted terrain, hailstones and other atmospheric shale burn into water before the city receives them, whole temperate zones dissipate over a lake and suck upward. The act of riding procures a medical wind to heal these stagnations. The lark, the griffin and the mallard, all birds of indeterminate temperature and vapour content, function as ignitors of the tide.

The calm assertiveness of these rhythms is permission not to understand. Patterns recur: ‘the land it is practised on’ fits a metrical formula Hopkins discovered in Shakespeare – he called it an ‘outriding foot’ – which he underlined whenever he found it; he liked strong caesuras, and believed that the two final (unstressed) syllables enforced a powerful emphasis on the previous one. Marcus’s sentences sound as though they belong in an encyclopedia or scientific text; it’s as if he’d merely replaced words you might expect to find (and therefore take for granted) with nonsensical others. But he preserves a sense, if not the fact, of accuracy: ‘unravel or bank off’ feels like precision, in that the second could be a qualifying alternative to the first, or they could be a statement of two possible sets of circumstances. It isn’t entirely nonsense semantically: words like ‘terrain’, ‘shale’, ‘temperate zones’ and ‘vapour content’ imply geography. Elsewhere, there are dictionary sections, which seem to suggest a system of some sort. It’s a comforting book to read.

Sometimes language aspires to perfect contextlessness: never-ending incantation, pure sound. This is something it can never achieve; but it can play with the idea. David Means’s first collection of stories, Assorted Fire Events, teeters on the edge of incantation in long, mesmeric, many sub-claused sentences that threaten to lose you as they go on. I admire his sense of rhythm. At the same time, his writing possesses a grand hypotactic inclusiveness, a kind of linguistic generosity that comprehends all sorts of things in passing. In the various stories, it changes register and vocabulary to accommodate different characters and ways of thinking; but the patterns remain the same. It travels between interiority and memory and the visibly present in a way that subordinates the visible and external. In the first story, a rich, unhappy man sets out barefoot to walk along the railroad tracks. This is the first accident that occurs to him:

Around the curve there was enough light – diffused across the hazy sky – to make out the shards of broken bottles (if he’d been looking down instead of forward). The piece he stepped on, from an old malt liquor bottle, was as jagged as the French Alps, the round base of the bottle forming a perfect support for the protrusion, the only piece of glass for yards, seated neatly against the rail plate; it went into his heel cleanly, cutting firmly into the hard pad, opening a wound that sent him falling sideways. It was one of those cuts that open up slowly into the possibilities of their pain, widening from a small point into a cone; this was the kind of cut that gave the fearful sense of being unlimited in the pain it would eventually produce . . .

‘The piece he stepped on’ is the clause that does it: besides its assertive rhythm (like ‘the barge she sat in’ – a telegraphed formula that is, ambiguously, more final and direct than it would be with its missing relative pronoun inserted), its formulation is a joke, an indication that the language, in its rolling proleptic inevitability, has somehow anticipated what the poor man couldn’t; a broken bottle can’t bring the language to a halt. There are no surprises. Means describes the indescribable – extraordinary pain, the only thing so entirely inside an individual consciousness as to be entirely incommunicable – in the same breath as the contingent, the lying-around, using the same measured vocabulary of shape and form (‘curve’, ‘protrusion’; ‘point’, ‘cone’). This is language that seems to be testing its ability to remain resistant to shock. It succeeds. But then, the odds are heavily stacked in its favour.

Means teaches you resistance by repeated dosage. These stories are phenomenally violent – most include at least one death. After stepping on the broken bottle, the barefoot man is stopped by three teenagers, who slowly, balletically, beat him to death. They lay his body on the tracks and a train runs over him; the engineer, unable to apply the brakes quickly enough, thinks he has killed him. The incident affects him, but not badly, because he knows these things happen all the time. In ‘The Interruption’, a homeless man walks into the middle of a wedding reception at the nearby Hilton in search of food; he is kicked and beaten by the host (he dies later). In ‘What They Did’, a girl, playing in the garden, is drowned when she falls into a frozen creek. The most systematically violent example is the title story, well to the back of the book, which describes various incidents of arson and accidental burning: a woman sets herself alight in her car; a boy sets a trussed-up dog alight; another boy sets himself alight when trying to burn a pile of wax paper. The peculiarity of the story, or collection of episodes, is in the anonymous narration: the narrator is in love with combustion, and associated with it (the woman in the car was his aunt). He records every fire faithfully. Some are telegraphically expressed in footnotes, added for a sense of satisfying completeness; some are more involved, with every detail lovingly remembered. He’s a combination of rhapsody and precision, an enactment in character of Means’s relentless language, which opens out expansively – then brutally closes in. An addicted arsonist and collector of incendiary moments needs escalating levels of pyrotechnics to register the same thrill. So does Means: if he’s to write about something, it had better be big.

There’s a demonstration in the book of what happens when the drama is removed: a two-page interlude, certainly not a story, called ‘What I Hope For’, which begins, ‘I don’t want anyone to die in my stories any more. From here on out it has to be a glorious life.’ What follows is an exercise in the hypothetical: a boy and a girl, visualised only in amorphous generality, will be on a windy island holiday. ‘Parking their bikes under the porch, locking the chains, they’ll wobble up to the lobby on weak legs.’ Some sentences, encompassing no real shock, are entirely rhythmic and lulling. ‘Only an occasional gust will grit their potato salad’: a Marcus-like moment, in which the word ‘grit’ is used transitively as a verb for alliterative effect – it seems to stand in for something more expected. And ‘potato salad’, silly-sounding, exaggerates its own arbitrariness. In Means’s world, nothing this undisturbed can really exist, but something more than the content of the interlude – the island idyll, the boy and the girl discovering each other – makes it different from the rest of the book. The hint of reassuring meaninglessness, of babble, is itself a form of defence, a way of warding off the book’s inevitable deaths and endings. Versions of this kind of avoidance appear, unsignalled, elsewhere. Before the man in the first story dies we’re taken in another direction: he appears to limp down the tracks to be rescued by a pastor who happens to be driving by. This (we knew it) is a fantasy: normality and death resume.

But, when you start looking, everything in this book exists in different versions. In ‘Sleeping Bear Lament’, a college kid at the beach remembers the disappearance of Sam, a misfit and loner, in the same shifting sands he’s sitting on now. Rondo, one of the crowd, takes a momentary break from the entertainment to pass out behind a sand-dune. His friends lose him and panic. He comes back; Sam never did. Rondo doesn’t remember Sam, but then he’d never have noticed him anyway. It’s the same place, but a different world. Characters reflect one another, inverted or distorted. But sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. Roy, the homeless man who dies in ‘The Interruption’, seems to be a version of Roy in ‘The Grip’, set sixty years earlier, who hangs onto the underside of a train crossing the Great Plains. Places and objects recur, but with different inflections, seen through different eyes in different circumstances.

Means is insistent; his repetitions, like his rhythms, are persuasive: they seem meaningful. It may be that the wax-paper factory passed by in one story manufactures the wax paper that leads to the accidental death of the arsonist. A paper factory (the same?) appears in ‘Sleeping Bear Lament’, too; the younger Sam once walked for a moment, ‘like Christ’, on the crust of the ‘huge sludge pit where Allied Paper poured its waste’. There are variations on the factory – ‘the spewing stacks of US Steel’, saw mills, water towers, piping companies, railroad control towers, bus shelters, prison courtyards. These are constant presences, likely to erupt in the middle of sentences; they combine to produce a material of invasive toxicity. Each shaky structure brings with it the memory of others. This is Means’s context: the background of DeLillo’s White Noise turned up to full blast. Land is developed, and in the process rivers are covered over with steel rods and concrete. There are consequences: the work has been rushed and the concrete collapses; a girl falls through and dies. If Means’s writing is impervious to loud bangs, then slow crumbling undoes it in the end. The real can intrude, but only through the collective malignity of effluvia and the ramshackle – a stronger, more affecting character than any of the people in the book.

This is the reality Means is susceptible to. But its constant presence suggests that it, too, is anticipated. He remains in control, not shockable into seeing what he can’t account for. Initially, it seems that there might be an exception. In ‘The Gesture Hunter’, an old man drives around his home-town, a place – now overdeveloped – that has lost its small-town sights: the dry-goods store owner hitching up his blue dungarees each morning; the woman across the road sweeping the pavement in a perfect, practised motion. The man is a promising narrator. What’s kept him going is a determined search for those little observed moments that imply some story behind them: unconscious movements that give a person away. On this particular day, as he drives, he sees a man and a woman embracing outside Olsen’s funeral parlour. ‘She bent and shifted with the great forces against her the way someone on the deck of a boat must adjust himself to a changing horizon – it was right there before me, the gyroscope of their pain holding the gesture, making it as pure as carved stone.’ It’s a real gesture; he has to see them again. He drives back round the block, to find himself – he hadn’t noticed anything before – in the middle of a film set: klieg lights and electric cables and ‘bored and lonely extras with their unreal eyes’. The moment has been betrayed, proved to be a fake. It’s also the final betrayal of the ordinary reality of his once comprehensible town – ‘the unreal was stopping traffic, attracting gawkers.’ This is an affront too far; there’s a violent conclusion. But the situation is more complicated than it seems. The finest of the old man’s gestures have one characteristic in common: there must be pain behind them. The most profound gesture in his collection belonged to his (dead) son. They were fishing together. He cast his line – and the hook accidentally caught his son’s cheek. ‘I had caused him sudden and inexplicable pain, and he had flicked it off, a simple gesture that continued in one fluid motion to his cast and his line being laid out over that dark pool.’ It isn’t the imitation of the gesture that constitutes the betrayal, but the simulation of pain. Pain must be felt, and pain is what the old man hunts. Like the pyromaniacal narrator of ‘Assorted Fire Events’, this narrator is more than an observer. Looking and recording will never be enough for him: a reasonable result will only be accidental. He has to create what he wants to see.

Left alone, and merely observed, facts won’t necessarily arrange themselves interestingly, so Means will arrange them for us – or rather arrange the same fact in various interesting permutations. Roy, clinging to the undercarriage of the train, remembers his mother pinning clothes on the washing-line and ‘scrutinising the horizon, as if in the view his father would appear as an aberration of light; for his father was one of those long-lost salesmen who took to the road selling and rarely came back’. I like that moment, but it’s revealing of a controlling habit. Roy’s father isn’t the only ‘aberration of light’ in the book; other people, too, appear only as the faintest traces: ‘the taste of her red hair in his mouth when they last hugged’; ‘the name of his betrayer an old friend, Samson, whose handshake still lingered in the palm of his golf glove upstairs’. Most of Means’s characters are constructed of more solid stuff than this, but they are constructed in the same way, as functions of something else, requirements of the writing.

For a demonstration of where this leads, see Notable American Women by Ben Marcus, who sets out to dismantle character entirely; or rather, character has no place in his book, which sets out to dismantle people. ‘People are considered as areas that resist light, mistakes in the air, collision sweet spots. At the time of this writing, the whole world is a crime scene: people eat space with their bodies; they are rain decayers; the wind is slaughtered when they move.’ In Marcus’s America, people are topographical accidents, incapable of autonomy; at least, this is the ideal the programme elaborated in the book aims to achieve. Ben Marcus’s home (‘Ben Marcus’ was defined in The Age of Wire and String as ‘the garment that is too heavy to allow movement’) has become the site of a large experiment in the elimination of behaviour and emotion, through a series of cultish practices designed to remove all traces of personality, since individuality is what pain and discomfort works on. Ben’s mother has apparently invited the fanatical experimenters into her house; his sister was a victim of an earlier experiment, in which a series of American girls’ names were tried out on her to see how they changed her (she died of the confusion); his father is imprisoned in the garden, buried in a small hole, and is shouted at through a pipe by a warden called Larry the Punisher. Material objects aren’t physically felt – a ‘facial mallet’ is recommended as a painless and trouble-free tool for removing the skull – but words hurt.

The emotion-removal project is, among other things, a satire of an imagined version of the behavioural experiments of B.F. Skinner, a version perhaps taken from an article in the October 1945 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal, which was accompanied by a photograph of Skinner’s daughter Deborah in a small glass box, apparently primed for experiments. Readers were appalled that a scientist could treat his own daughter so horrifically. (Deborah, incidentally, is a name that when used on Ben’s sister unfortunately caused ‘small emotional showings . . . contentment and pleasure, occasional cheer’.) The article was the beginning of Skinner’s notoriety: Deborah was later rumoured to have been driven to suicide by her early treatment. But she announced in response that she didn’t seem to have killed herself. The unreality of the story makes it an easy, and pointless, object for a satire. It may be that in this instance words don’t hurt enough: Notable American Women, unexpectedly, has a story; this is a distraction from the business of interpreting (or not interpreting) meaninglessness. Marcus has decided to assert himself. In a section entitled ‘Blueprint’, which dictates instructions for how the book should be read, he writes: ‘At the end of this book, the characters should stand in a line and bow. All the places and names should fade to powder . . . The book should be closed so hard that a wind blows from it, gusting however feebly into whatever little world there is left.’ At that I rebel.