Friday, July 22, 2011

The Moors by Ben Marcus

 (Madras Press, 2011)

I have for nearly five and a half years now worked within a corporate office setting, in different capacities, for the same company. I am, as of my writing this, in preparation to leave this setting in one week, to move out of my home state, to attend “graduate school”. (I don’t know why I put it in quotes. Really, I am attending graduate school. In “Literary Arts”.)

And I wonder sometimes how the office has influenced me and if it has at all influenced the way I write and what I might write about. Honestly, I can’t imagine myself writing anything of fictitious worth about an office space. Regardless, one of my probably biggest literary influences, Mr. Ben Marcus, has in fact written up a story about a bland, all-too-familiar, cubicle-flooded space, and has done so incredibly.

The Moors is a longish short story that first appeared in the venerable literary journal Tin House, and has now, for charitable benefit of the Friend Memorial Library, been republished on its own as a pocket-sized edition. Owning it, I think I now own (and have read) all of Ben Marcus’ standalone books and I think it is safe to say that this is another “move” for Marcus.

His debut, The Age of Wire and String (my favourite of his), is a chopped up series of prose poems or flash fictions, in addition to some periodically listed definitions, which, in unison, burn an entirely new gravity into the world: an entirely new world. And it’s entirely refreshing. This was followed by a collaborative work, a fever dream narrative in short called The Father Costume, combining Marcus’ text with the visual art of Matthew Ritchie. And then his most recent (though almost ten years old now) novel, Notable American Women, which developed a more straight forward narrative in comparison to his debut, but is likely much more inventive and disjointed than most anything you might’ve read before. Certainly not conventional. There’ve only been three books, but each makes a move in a different direction and The Moors is a move towards conventional.

Some will see this as a slight. It is not. The Moors owns. Lets get that straight here and now. And when I say conventional, I speak (loosely) of structure. The story is not quite what I would put forward as conventional. A taste of the first line gives it away: “At work today, Thomas the Dead, as he privately named himself, made a grave miscalculation by using baby talk with a colleague.”

Thomas, our protagonist, is wonderfully death-obsessed and manages, in the space what would otherwise have been a simple minute or two—the brief walk to refill for coffee in “The Moors”: “[An office area] so misconceived architecturally that none of the so-called founders at Crawford could do anything but stash the coffee cart in it, stain it with some Germanic decorations that seemed spritzed from a fire hose—a hose with different ethnic tips—and hope not to die. Somewhere there were architects rubbing their hands together, laughing at the idiots who were daily demoralized in the spaces they designed.”—to evaluate and “miscalculate” the whole of the life-stealing condition that is working within a corporate office.

In contrast to the surreal flights of otherworldliness handled in Marcus’ other works, the world here seems mostly our own, aside from Thomas’ particular mind and “the civic timekeeping strategy” that “shook the entire building” with the scheduled window collision of “something capable of feeling great pain.

So a step, and an exciting step, into the realms of formal literary convention, with the bonus of Marcus’ sharp-tipped and insane prose.  In short, a must.

This story has me more than more than excited for Marcus’ 2012 novel, The Flame Alphabet, due out in January hopefully. The Moors seems a worthy precursor to what attempts to be (at least what from what Marcus has revealed in interviews) more conventional narrative-wise.

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