RHETORIC The art of making life less believable; the calculated use of language, not to alarm but to do full harm to our busy minds and properly dispose our listeners to a pain they have never dreamed of.
—from Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String
What’s breathtaking about this definition is how it is both one and not one; how it is indicative of the backbroke sentences that comprise Marcus’ amazing and amazingly baffling text about not-knowing, about conventional mimesis as a kind of somnolence, about the very problematics of representation; how this sentence, that is, like them all in The Age of Wire and String, is a post-genre edifice that exists in some blur space between or beyond theory and fiction, poetry and prose, meaning and the other thing, by means of what we might call paragrammatic illegibility that gives rise to an abstract language that almost means, but not quite (why do “alarm” and “harm” rhyme so loudly, so close together? in what sense can language make someone receptive to a pain she or he can’t imagine? shouldn’t “our listeners” be “our readers”? and by “our” the narrator—who is, come to think of it, who, exactly?—means … what, exactly? means … whom?), a language whose signifiers gesture at non-existent signifieds, unhinge the process of reading by fashioning something approaching asemic wordage that looks and sounds like it should make perfect sense … until, that is, you pay attention to it, until you think about it; how it does all that, how it forces the reader to imagine in slow motion, brother of a Barthelme sentence, second cousin of one by Burroughs, to be aware continuously of the process of reading until she or he realizes with a shock that the sentence has actually been performing what it has been about all along: how, in the end, it does what it is talking about, as all rhetoric should, in the world according to Marcus, all art—cause life to be less believable, which is to say more conscious of itself as construction, as experience always-already mediated by language, as a kind of fiction, not to put too fine a point on it, that defamiliarizes itself in order to startle said reader into waking, again and again, in order to feel, which is to say to think, which is to say to feel in exciting ways that challenge all he or she takes for granted, again and again, about language and experience and narrativity itself while reminding her or him, as Ronald Sukenick reminded his students, constantly, that if we don’t use our own imaginations someone else is going to use them for us … which is nothing if not the goal of all art that doesn’t aspire to be entertainment, to be film’s flicker or one of Lady Gaga’s glam pop evanescences, right?
Lance Olsen is the author of many novels, including My Red Heaven, Dreamlives of Debris, Theories of Forgetting, Calendar of Regrets, Head in Flames, and Skin Elegies; five nonfiction books, five short-story collections, a poetry chapbook, and two anti-textbooks about experimental writing, including Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing; as well as editor of two collections of essays about innovative contemporary fiction. Recipient of numerous awards, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.