Recursivity in prose was a favorite trick of American postmodernists, with Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and William Gass all spinning particular variations. While interviewing Gass in 1998 for Bookworm, Michael Silverblatt claimed Gass’s proclivities toward heightened and mannered language were ultimately grounded by a focus on place: the Midwest. We Make Mud, the newest collection of fiction from Peter Markus, is a descendent of Gass’s oeuvre, particularly On Being Blue, but results in a unique book focused on a paradoxically clear setting.
We Make Mud consists of brothers fishing, a father working, a mother resting, men crossing rivers: curiously vague characters performing even more curious actions. Those actions sometimes become violent, as the unnamed brothers drive nails into each other’s hands. We Make Mud does not exist in a realistic world, though: Markus deconstructs, and then methodically reconstructs, the reader’s comprehension of setting and character through his recursive language. Gass and his contemporaries might have had more of a cultural goal, whereas Markus endeavors to make us believe through disbelief.
His accomplishment of this feat is a true reward for the reader—at least the reader willing to remain in his exaggerated, elongated prose-poetic moments. The book arrives in blocks of texts without indentation and paragraph, and sentences such as this are common: “Maybe we do what our mother says for us brothers not to do—this no, this don’t, this mud—because we like it when our mother and our father say to us these words too: words that make the sound that a hammer sometimes makes when it hammers rusted nails into wood.”
The only section not containing blocked paragraphs is titled “Good, Mother.“ “Our father is not with us” is one of many clever plays with prayer and Biblical language in the book, but the real reason Markus uses this language is to focus our attention on the mother. The characters first act with care, holding her hand to the back of the house, where “we lay our mother down into this bed.” The care does not last, as the brothers build a resentment for the mother: it was she who “made us brothers wash the mud from our hands,” who said “that she wanted to go somewhere, anywhere . . . west of here.” Her punishment is implied in the final lines of the section, when the brothers “raise back the hammer” while they “line up these rusted nails.” It’s a jarring section, but it shows Markus’s control over the narrative as a whole.
Markus’s lexicon hinges on the juxtaposition of concrete words (fish, tree, mud) with more abstract titles (mother, father, brothers). The result is fascinating: supposedly concrete objects become malleable upon closer inspection, and the reader discovers that letters fall away upon repetition. This isn’t a literary parlor trick: the experimentation affects the content, creating a dizzying world where violence begets rebirth. We Make Mud is not for everyone—some readers will conclude that this massage of language stings the muscles, and the prior publication of many of the smaller chapters causes them to have the feel of standalones—but for those who love the possibilities of fictive language, the whole of We Make Mud is a treat.