Ben Marcus: “What Have You Done?” from The New Yorker, 8/8/2011

Art by Marcia Petty, "Generations"

"Generations" by Marcia Petty

Delay the body time, the time itself, the time, while he built up his nerve, or whatever strategy you employed when bracing yourself for Cleveland. For the people of Cleveland. His people.

This story contains its own syllabus for at least three classes, one on the reveal of information (slowly, gradually, stealthily), another on choosing setting (from the Book Bench interview – don’t worry, I’ll get there), and finally one on the use of very close 3rd person. Plus a psychology class or two on You Can Go Home Again – In Fact, You Can Never Leave. I don’t know where to start.

I will defer once again to the wise Betsy at The Mookse and the Gripes who writes: “This is a superior story of peculiar power, and its effects depend upon a slow reveal, so if you haven’t read the story yet, I’d recommend you read the story, not this!” I agree. So if there’s any chance at all you can find a copy of The New Yorker from August 8, 2011 at a friend’s house or your local library or for that matter your dentist’s office, stop now. You don’t want to spoil yourself. Go get your teeth cleaned, and read. It’s worth it. And if your dentist doesn’t have The New Yorker in her waiting room, get a better dentist.

On the reveal of information: in an eight page story, we’re still learning and confirming background on page eight. It’s the Ben Marcus way of avoiding flashbacks, he informs us in his Book Bench interview: “The characters in the story — Paul’s mother, his father, his sister, and his brother-in-law—they are the back story, because they react to Paul as if nothing has changed…. Maybe if I can find a way to write flashbacks that don’t seem digressive, or don’t put a huge parking boot on a story, killing its momentum, I will. For now, when I disrupt the present of the story and give a flashback, it’s not only like I’ve defanged the story, but I’ve extracted all of its teeth and deflated its whole face as well, so what’s left is a rumpled mess.” I think it’s pretty brilliant, this fuzzy-focus and hinting, and I hope he never learns how to write a flashback. Storing the backstory in a character, or a set of characters – I wish I’d thought of that. This is what writing teachers are talking about when they scold me to “stay in scene” and stop zigzagging back and forth.

Marcus chose Cleveland as a setting specifically because he’s never been there. “I think the vacuum I sense around a place I haven’t been, like Cleveland (I guess I’ve been in the airport), is helpful to me, absolving me from being a tour guide, letting me focus on the story itself.” This is really freeing from the “Write what you know, research every little detail, know every twig and traffic light and shore and cobblestone.” This story could be set anywhere, but he uses changes in the skyline (a likely thing in any major city over 20 years) and architecture as a nice little wedge a few times. The skyline changes; the view from his family’s house never does. And it’s no coincidence the title is in past tense.

I’m not so sure I understand his comments on the use of third person: “With the third-person point-of-view, I could have Paul indulge dark, horrible thoughts, which the reader listens in on, but his awful condemnations are sealed off from the world of the story.” I guess if it were first person, the “I” would still be present at better moments. I’m not sure why the “he” doesn’t give the same effect, but I’ll take his word for it. Because it moves from an extremely close Paul focus to more of a group shot? I still struggle with third person POV as more than a not-first-person catch-all. But between this and “Nothing of Consequence,” I’m learning.

The pace of the reveal is what makes this story great. We start out knowing only that Paul is in Cleveland and some family – Dad, Alicia, Rick – meets him at the airport. We don’t know who Alicia and Rick are for a while – they turn out to be his sister and high-school-friend-turned-brother-in-law. We don’t know why he’s in Cleveland (family reunion) until the third column of page 3. We find out his mother is “resting” and along the way – all the way to page 8 – we get hints she’s ill; this seems like news to Paul but he doesn’t inquire and no one tells him the whole story; we never really find out if she’s specifically ill or if she’s just getting old. He’s been out of touch with the family for a while – he didn’t know his sister moved three years ago – and I kept wondering why he’d return for this family reunion. That question is never answered.

Most importantly, we pick up strange signals. Everyone seems to be afraid of Paul. His mother is frightened to be alone with him. They treat him with kid gloves. He’s very aware of this. “Everyone in his family was constantly needing to rest, but never from physical exertion. Always from the other kind of exertion. Resting from him, Paul the difficult, who latched on to your energy center with his little red mouth and sucked it dry.” “‘Let’s not set him off,’ his father had probably advised. ‘Let’s nobody get him going. It’s just not worth it.'” We get peeks into what it was like in the family when he was a kid. His sister Alicia knows he’s masturbating after he’s been in his room for ten minutes (and she’s right) based on his youthful behavior. Rick is defined as his friend in high school because: “…they’d once almost gone camping together.” There’s a reference to heirloom breakage. Paul had a stormy childhood and adolescence, it seems. And his family will never let him leave it behind. It doesn’t help that he’s been estranged and out of touch with them for many years.

The immediate conflict in the story comes when he tells them he has a good job and a wife and two-year-old son, and they don’t believe him. Oh, they say they do, in that “Yes, yes, of course, we believe you” sort of way, but he reads his mother’s face: “Such concern in her face, such pity, as if to say, poor, poor Paul, who still needs to lie to us, and what did we ever do to create this man?” As a reader I actually wasn’t completely sure myself until he spoke to his wife on the phone, carefully moving out of earshot of his family-of-origin. And by the way, we don’t know for sure that he’s not abusive to her, though I suspect it would be in the story if he were. She thinks he didn’t bring her to the reunion because he’s ashamed of her. It’s himself he’s ashamed of, of his past, of who he used to be, the Paul his family will never move past.

Eventually Paul reverts to his earlier behavior patterns, confirming everyone’s belief and restoring the balance the family needs. Yes, that’s it – he is the Bad Seed, and everyone (including Paul) is invested in keeping it that way. You think I’m making this up? As Marcus says in his interview: “If families could suddenly repair themselves, a part of literature would die out.”

The story ends on a note both hopeful and dismaying. He has a plan to remedy the rift, but it’s heartbreaking to see him consider it: he’ll mail them evidence of his new family. “In their own time, they could examine the evidence of their son’s new life. They could do it without him standing there. Paul would send all the proof he had and then he would wait. He’d be many miles away, where he could do no harm. At their leisure, they could examine the parts of their son that would not hurt them.”

I approached this story with great trepidation. I’ve read two other Ben Marcus stories: “The Moors” from Madras Press, and “Rollingwood” published earlier this year in The New Yorker. Neither appealed to me; I couldn’t get even slightly interested in the former, and I found the latter depressing and dead-end. “What Have You Done?” makes me pause and reconsider. The Flame Alphabet is something I think I want to read, after all.

2 responses to “Ben Marcus: “What Have You Done?” from The New Yorker, 8/8/2011

  1. I agree. The story “Rollingwood” was pointlessly mean-spirited. This story, though, was excellent and despite its hars tone it was truthful and poignant.

    • Hi Ken – thanks for your comment. I’m always nervous when I don’t like a story by someone of Ben Marcus’ stature, so I’m glad to know someone else felt the same way about “Rollingwood.” And I’m always delighted to find out there’s more to a writer than the work I didn’t like.

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