BASS 2016: Ben Marcus, “Cold Litte Bird” from The New Yorker 10/19/15

It started with bedtime. A coldness. A formality.
Martin and Rachel tucked the boy in, as was their habit, then stooped to kiss him good night.
“Please don’t do that,” he said, turning to face the wall.
They took it as teasing, flopped onto his bed to nuzzle and tickle him.
The boy turned rigid, endured the cuddle, then barked out at them, “I really don’t like that!”
“Jonah?” Martin said, sitting up.
“I don’t want your help at bedtime anymore,” he said. “I’m not a baby. You have Lester. Go cuddle with him.”
“Sweetheart,” Rachel said. “We’re not helping you. We’re just saying good night. You like kisses, right? Don’t you like kisses and cuddles? You big silly.”
… “We love you so much. You know?” Martin said. “So we like to show it. It feels good.”
“Not to me. I don’t feel that way.”
“What way? What do you mean?”
They sat with him, perplexed, and tried to rub his back, but he’d rolled to the edge of the bed, nearly flattening himself against the wall.
“I don’t love you,” Jonah said.
“Oh, now,” Martin said. “You’re just tired. No need to say that sort of stuff. Get some rest.”
“You told me to tell the truth, and I’m telling the truth. I. Don’t. Love. You.”

~~ Complete story available online at TNY

Seriously creepy story. No monsters, no supernatural events, no blood or violence, just a kid who rationally, calmly decides to withdraw from parental affection. How’s a parent supposed to deal with that one? In this story, not well. But… what would well even look like? I suppose the natural approach to this story is to wonder, “What would I do,” but since I’m not a parent, I have no idea what to do with a typical child, let alone a child like this.

Jonah isn’t acting out. He isn’t withdrawing from anyone else – his relationship with his brother and his behavior in school is perfectly normal – and he isn’t disobedient. He’s just hyperrational, as though he’s examined his parents and found them unsuitable as bonding objects so has simply stopped participating in whatever love is. At first, the natural assumption is that he’s been abused, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. At one point he does coldly and calculatedly remind them of the consequences should he confide to a school counselor that his family forces him to hug and cuddle against his will, but don’t get sidetracked: the threat is instrumental (and terrifyingly effective) at obtaining his goal, but his withdrawal doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with any abuse.

What is a ten-year-old’s meaning of “I love you, Dad” anyway? Admiration of adult capabilities, gratitude for parental duties, familiarity, need, blackmail, mimickry? Granted the existence of a child’s wish to stay close to his parents – and there’s no indication that Jonah wants to leave his home – is that called “love” by default? What is it like when parents are called on it: I don’t dislike you, I want your caretaking, I respect your authority, but I don’t love you.

There’s also a very interesting twist about religion and identity: when Jonah starts reading about trutherism, the natural reaction of his father is to freak out over his son talking about Jewish conspiracies. “Listen to me, you know that we’re Jewish, right?” Martin asks his son. “Not really”, the boy answers, because to him, Jewishness is measured by religious observance that’s been absent from their lives rather than cultural heritage, which doesn’t seem to play that big a part either. I think I could’ve handled that conversation better than Martin did, which was basically, “Because anti-Semites think you’re Jewish.”

It seems to be contagious, this isolation, in effect if not in cause: Martin and Rachel have a sex scene that’s disgusting, not because of any graphic descriptions of hot, sticky animal passion, but because of the total absence of it. The family shows early signs of disintegration.

It’s the rationality that’s creepiest, since it scratches through the millimeter-thick shell of social conditioning we all adopt as part of civilization. The conflict is between Jonah’s newfound stance in rationality, and the parents’ continued existence in emotionality and social convention. I wonder if they’re unable, or merely unwilling to give up the comforts little white lies and niceties allow us, even for a moment, even to understand their son. They simply want him back the way he was yesterday; he simply doesn’t want to come back. Impasse. He’s crossed some barrier, and his parents can’t reach across. Will they learn how, as time goes on? Or are they all stuck, with Jonah in something like a dimensional shift out of a science fiction movie?

The progression of the story is pretty much what you’d expect: a series of attempts by the parents to laugh off, wait through, reason away, and pathologize what’s going on. Something like the five stages of grief, but we never get to acceptance of the “new normal” as Marcus refers to it in his highly informative Page Turner interview. Will they ever get there? Marcus leaves that for the reader to decide.

Ben Marcus: “The Dark Arts” from TNY, 5/20/13

TNY art by Brendan Monroe

TNY art by Brendan Monroe

These days, autoimmune diseases were the most sophisticated way to undermine yourself, to be your own worst enemy.

Hey Julian: You think you’ve cornered the market on suffering, don’t you? Maybe you have. You and your three tombstones.

Your story begins and ends with with sex; that’s a clue right there to where the problem lies, isn’t it. First, the sounds of sex in the night at your hostel, sounds that bring to your mind “animals strapped to breathing machines, children smothered under blankets.” Is the intimacy you crave really that frightening to you? No, I don’t think so; I think the craving you deny is really that smothering.

You paint your pain for us, the battle between you and you, your body that can’t tell the difference between what is it and what is not, between friend and foe. You use such exquisite phrasing, images of destruction – and you know, don’t you, how anything medical holds special interest for me – that I’m drawn in. But drawn in to what? Your trip to Germany (where you so easily tell the difference between natives and foreigners), to what “was meant to be a romantic medical-tourist getaway” for you and Hayley, you to get your rebellious white blood cells under control, she to… what, take care of you? Fix you, make you acceptable? I don’t know yet, I just know that the trip was her idea. And this brings us to your first tombstone:

That was a tombstone inscription for you: Julian Bledstein. He went without saying.

So what happened with you and Hayley? You quarreled, sure – you quarreled all through Europe until she finally stayed behind in France while you went to Germany – but what about? Is it just your nature to quarrel, like your white blood cells that quarrel with your bones? Or does Hayley play some part in it as well:

She was too stubbornly self-contained, too confident, too O.K. with it all, which was decidedly not O.K. with Julian. A self needed to spill out sometimes; a body should show evidence of what the hell went on inside it. But Hayley had built a firewall around her feelings and moods. There was no knowing her, and fuck you if you tried to pierce her privacy. You were a creep and an invader, and you’d be rebuffed, then shamed.

I have only your word for it; Hayley is not here for me to ask. Was she attracted to you for the repulsive nature – repulsive in the sense of that which sends away – of your very cells? The man who can’t be touched, the woman who doesn’t want to touch, a match made in a hellish heaven?

You repulse your father, as well, with your lies about the great hotel and the sumptuous meal you’re about to search for, your father who would send you his last dime if it meant you would get well, your father who tried to feed you over and over, just to get you to live (something about him making pancakes – the widower who learned to make pancakes to feed his sick son – touches me), then scraped the food you rejected into the trash and made more. Maybe it’s because you are the blood of his blood that he hasn’t given up on you, that he keeps trying? Is that what works for you, this repulsive nature of yours, that others have to keep trying? Do you like the reassurance? Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

“You are not supposed to be coming alone,” says the receptionist at the clinic. None of us are supposed to be coming alone, but that’s all some of us have, isn’t it? Ourselves, the ourselves we reject. Tricky stuff, this.

But then you feel better. Is it because of the treatment? And of course you sink right into existential angst, once the physical angst leaves you: maybe you aren’t sick at all: “Perhaps this was just what it felt like to be alive.” Maybe you just long for existential angst now that the discomfort has eased; at least the scenery is different.

And when the man in the hostel takes “liberties” climbing into your bed while you’re dreaming of someone who isn’t Hayley but is nonetheless warm and sweet and comforting, you repulse that as well. Hey Julian, come on, think about it: Wouldn’t it be a scream if your autoimmunity was a physical manifestation of repressed homosexuality? If your body has converted your rejection of same-sex into rejection of same-self?

You go back to wondering if your complaint is justified, if maybe it’s just this exaggerated sense of outrage you have, the one that convinces you other people don’t feel this way: maybe it doesn’t matter that a stranger sneaks into your bed in a hostel. You can’t quite get the “beggars can’t be choosers” maxim right, but you’ve got what you need from it: “Wasn’t it enough to be kissed by someone?”

No, Julian, it isn’t. But it’s kind of sweet-sad you think it might be.

And when the doctor shows you the shadow on your brain scan, the one you see in the light box, the one you want to understand, to move it from abstraction to reality – “Where is it?” you ask the doctor, but he doesn’t understand, he just points again to the scan: “It is here,” instead of putting his finger above your left ear or in the center of your forehead or just above the nape of your neck or on the very crown of your head to show you where, in fact, this shadow lives – you get your second tombstone.

This first. To understand this. Then, maybe.

Which implies, maybe not.

No doubt a scary moment for you: a moment when you want someone to comfort you, an ally, someone to become one with you. But all you get Hayley, returned from wherever, from whomever, brimming with hope and affection and you long for an animosity scan, to finally locate with precision the resentment, the detachment. For now, all you have is the feeling:

Looking at Hayley, seeing her radiate, feeling her cozy up against him, it was ridiculously hard—in fact, it was impossible—not to feel that the affection she was suddenly smothering him with was meant for someone else.

You send her away, your emotional antibodies reacting to an alien presence, here in a foreign country where you over and over stand out as an other whether getting medical treatment or arranging a hostel room or ordering a jamless crepe. Maybe that’s hopeful. Hayley is the closest other you have, which isn’t saying much, is it. In fact, it may be the problem: did you choose her because she would not get too close? Is that the this you are finally beginning to understand?

You began with the strangling sounds of sex; now you end with the hope of sex, if sex with strangers. Seen from that angle, it’s an improvement, I suppose, if you’ve stopped rejecting yourself. I know repression is a powerful thing, but did it really take a shadow on your brain to lead you to a shadow on your soul?

You come up with your final tombstone, the one that will serve you this coming night in the hostel:

Wouldn’t you like to join me?

It’s a start.

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.

Ben Marcus – “Rollingwood” from The New Yorker, March 21, 2011


New Yorker art by Jamie Grill/Alamy

In high school, I had my first experience with Depression, the capital-D kind. At the time, my English class was reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I couldn’t finish it; that novel became the synonym for depression for me. Then we read The Scarlet Letter which also depressed me immensely (all these novels about single mothers doomed by society while the men who impregnated them went merrily on their way…). And to round out the trifecta, I discovered Hermann Hesse. Beneath the Wheel. Every depressed high schooler reads Hesse, but I had a whole collection. Demian. Steppenwolf. And one other, I think… Because The Bell Jar just wasn’t depressing enough.

This story is so depressing, it brought me back to those days. Poor Mather, who runs into obstacles at every turn, who never runs into anyone who says “Yes” or “I can help you with that” or “Sure”. His baby is sick. His carpool is callous. His daycare is closed for no reason. His boss is inaccessible, and his boss’s secretary sabotages a message to make it seem he’s quit his job. Busses run a minute early and he misses them. His ex-wife takes off and leaves him with the baby for an unspecified period of time, then gripes that he’s left the baby with a stranger – a baby sitter who protects the child when the ex-wife shows up. And he has no recourse. It’s just too much. I love to wallow in misery as much as the next person, but this was too much. There was no point, other than describing suffering. Ok, there is a slight uptick at the end, with Mather looking again towards Rollingwoods, that far-off place from long-ago, and is inspired to build a train table for his son. In his interview with The New Yorker, Marcus says: ” What seems sad to me at the end is Mather’s apparent hopefulness.” And he’s got a point there. But isn’t that the point of the piece? The hopefulness that arises, out of refusal to accept reality or just stubbornness and insistance that there must, there must be something good somewhere? No? Ok. Let’s go back to unremitting misery. And foolish hopefulness as a symptom.

I read another story from Ben Marcus recently, “The Moors” from Tin House which was reprinted in one of the Madras Press series 2 books. Alienated man goes to office coffee cart for a danish. It takes him thirty pages to get there. I gave up twelve pages in. That isn’t to say there wasn’t some good stuff in there, though I can’t remember any of it now. It didn’t work for me. His forthcoming book, The Flame Alphabet, sounds amazing – the central premise is the toxicity of language, how irresistable is that. He claims the book has a straightforward narrative line, a single clear plot, and is less “experimental” than his other longer fiction. But he considers “The Moors” to be pretty traditional narrative. Hmmm. I have until next January to decide. For now, I think Ben Marcus is way out of my league.