SKY DESTROYS DOG
Ben Marcus, The Age of Wire and StringFlamingo, £12.99
Quotation is the only way to cope with something this original:
AIR DAYS, in the Western Worship Boxes, traditionally the Wednesday, Friday and Half-Man Day following the first Sunday that a dog has suffocated the weather. They were days of foodless observance to sanctify the season of Charles, which was notable for its storms of airlessness and heavy frontals near the north that caused all but the dogs to retreat to their air hostels. Air days are of very ancient and uncertain origin. The dates of their celebration are now determined by dog descendants (similar to the Labrador, but with the additional storm lung) rather than by the universal storm calender and are frequently called "days of air for food." Difficulties with dog populations in the Western Worship Boxes generated the mass suffocation of Ohio (1973), and the speed-fasting experiments of Buffalo and Schenectady (1980-1982), in which the Western population of those cities mistimed the exit day of their religious food-minus, thus breaking their fasts before the season of Charles had restored air to their homes, when the storm dogs still stalked the houses, breathing up the airless wind and eating the air and rain, praying to Charles that the people would not return.
It has cost me some effort to think of anything comparable to this. The best I have come up with is 'The Orators' by W.H.Auden. There is a similar sense of authoritative codification - of rules being written down that we must follow.
But wheras Auden is writing in a series of voices, and therefore from a series of social positions, that can clearly be gauged, Ben Marcus seems to address the reader from another age or another scale of existence.
This is the world of the American house and back yard, but magnified. It includes many of the self-limitations of childhood: If I can walk to the sweetshop and not tread on any of the cracks, I'll be able to buy ten Cola Bottles instead of five.
At the beginning of the book there is an Argument. The most important part runs:
'There is no larger task than that of cataloguing a culture, particularly when that culture has remained wilfully hidden to the routine in-gazing practised by professional disclosers, who, after systematically looting our country of its secrets, are now busy shading every example of so-called local color into their own banal clues.'
The local colour here is a magnification of a back yard into an entire civilisation. People become deities. Dogs become major players. Weather is dictated by controllable butterfly effects - or by superstition.
The book is divided into titled sections: Sleep, God, Food, The House, Animal, Weather, Persons, The Society. Each section has five titled subsections, and a list of Terms - most of which occur elsewhere in the book than the immediately preceding section.
The Terms are arranged in alphabetical order, except where another definition is needed to explain one of the terms used in the preceding definition.
The layout is as madly logical as Wittgenstein's Tractatus. In fact, philosophy seems to be the only area where I can come up with any comparisons that give an idea of this book's oddness.
I have been struggling for some time with A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari's primer of a rhizomic world. Passages like this a do similar moulinexing job on my brain to Marcus:
A field of anuses, just like a pack of wolves. Does not the child, on the periphery, hold onto the wolves by his anus? The jaw descends to the anus. Hold on to those wolves by your jaw and your anus. The jaw is not a wolf jaw, it's not that simple; jaw and wolf form a multiplicity that is transformed into eye and wolf, anus and wolf, as a function of other distances, at other speeds, with other multiplicities, between threshholds.
I spent nine months looking forward to reading Don Delillo's Underworld, and was disappointed. I found The Age of Wire and String while browsing in Compendium books, it is already one of my favourite books of all time.