More books from 2011.
The Moors by Ben Marcus
The Moors is not quite a book in the traditional sense–more of a complex and involving pamphlet–but it represents the longest piece of writing, bar the Flame Alphabet (which just came out), that Ben Marcus has released or published in the past nine or so years. Marcus is one of my favorite writers, and not only for his style, which is, if not 100% his own, then as close to it as any contemporary author’s can be. He seems to incorporate a number of ideas from philosophy of language into his fiction, in ways that are less didactic and more straight-up bewildering/terrifying. It’s almost as if he takes the serious hypotheses of people like Kripke or Wittgenstein or Quine or whoever and imagines the world in which those hypotheses would be true everyday and everywhere–atomically. For instance, in Notable American Women, there is a long section on the Naming Machine (it ran as an excerpt in McSweeney’s #8) where different names are tested by members of a family upon the daughter/sister figure. Her reactions–which vary widely and are sometimes grotesue and negative, other times very positive–are recorded for government use (see Kripke, Naming & Necessity. Marcus is sort of perverting the causal theory of reference, or just turning it to his own uses), and the girl ends up being tortured by the process, with the lasting point being that there is something essential about the name that has an effect upon the person bearing it.
The Moors is almost nothing like Marcus’s other writing, and, from what I’ve heard about his new novel, seems closer in spirit to the Flame Alphabet. It’s a turn towards more traditional forms and style, though the rigorous thinking is still there, and that’s maybe what I like most about Marcus. He notices down to the most micro, fine-grained detail, like most great writers, but he knows how to use that info in service of a well-placed heartbreaker of a sentence, or for a great joke. Like Padgett Powell, Marcus is a grammar virtuoso, and, since he knows the rules so well, he has a good ear for constructions or usage in English that can be bent to perfect effect, for example, there’s this from near the beginning:
Anyway, Thomas couldn’t fathom how a person who hoped to live through the day could subscribe to such a Lego-ridden fantasy of worker relations the word colleague implied: as if a group of people whose heads were darkened by the very same hovering ass–something he decidedly never learned in night school was the term for how the human voice sounded when the mouth was smothered by an oily slab of buttock–would ever link arms, sing songs, and be massively productive together, just because they peed against the same wall or starched themselves into a stupor on the salted Breadkins from the vending machine every day.
There are portions of The Moors during which it’s tough to keep up with the jokes, each sentence is rich with weird humor or an off-use of a cliched term or an unbearably nuanced analysis of office mores, etc. If you enjoyed Wallace’s Pale King at all, you will definitely enjoy this book. And for all its weirdness, the ending will kill you, I promise. I have a suspicion that The Moors is Ben Marcus’s version of a sitcom, or at least his way of relaxing a little and taking a risk in a manner that doesn’t involve the re-invention of contemporary American experimental fiction, and it might be the best thing he’s ever done (though it’s true I haven’t read Flame Alphabet yet).