Is a mime a clown? A fool in a box? A dancer, an athlete, an artist? How about a fabricator and a truth teller? Or a little bit of the deepest fear, the most unguarded delight, lodged in all of us?
Shawn Wen's A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause (Sarabande Books, July 2017) won't give you a comprehensive overview of mime or of the book's subject, the incomparable Marcel Marceau. But you don't need straight narrative for illumination, or to grow fascinated with a form that perhaps you never thought of as transcending the maudlin pantomime of climbing an invisible staircase.
Wen, a California-based writer and radio producer who spent two years in Durham working for The State of Things, may even convince you that greater skill exists in that campy act than you would have believed, unfolding the mime's most powerful revelations about humanity. She may redefine mime for you, just as this little volume redefines terms like poetry, prose, biography, and book.
Marceau communicated through the manipulation of his body, the space around him, and collective imagination. "Leave speech behind," Wen writes. "The body has its own language: weight, resistance, hesitation, surprise."
Still, perhaps inevitably given her work in radio, Wen's work arrives aurally. The book echoes its subject's silence: heavy on white space, each page mimics Marceau's creation of something out of an empty stage, ex nihilo, a feat Wen is obsessed with. This layout makes for a quick read and elides some biographical features. Wen is infusing every word with as much power as Marceau used in each muscle to mime, say, kissing a woman, or drawing a last breath, in a way that was artistic but also human.
Wen's precision frees her to try on any genre, as Marceau's physical control allowed him to be anyone. Turning a page might reveal a list of his belongings, a scene featuring his beloved character, Bip, a prose poem, or a story of how he met one of his wives or rescued Jewish children during World War II. At last, the disparate pieces connect, as all of Marceau's isolated movements sinuously come together to construct a man, and also, more than a man.
You may think nothing of mime; I didn't before reading this, though now I see mime's resonance in everything from improv to break dancing. Wen's book somehow voices the power of recognizing yourself in a living metaphor, as you'll hear when she comes to Letters Bookshop Thursday evening.