The Banal, Infected: On Ben Marcus’s Notes from the Fog

Across two novels and three short story collections, Ben Marcus has pioneered an aesthetic that if rendered as a thesis statement might read: the banal is always infected by the malignant. A writer and champion of audacious, inventive prose, Marcus’s 2005 essay in Harper’s, “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know it: A Correction,” issued as a rebuttal to novelist Jonathan Franzen’s 2002 essay, “Mr. Difficult,” remains the benchmark defense of uncompromising, literary prose in modern times — times, Marcus argues, hostile to ambitious literature. Marcus’s own prose has evolved considerably over his three story collections, though his fidelity to, as he wrote in Harper’s, “engrave the elusive aspects of life’s entanglements, to represent the intensity of consciousness, to produce the sort of stories that transfix and mesmerize” is steadfast. 

Much of Marcus’s fiction is categorized as speculative, though that term carries with it an air of smug perceptiveness, of the seer who alone divines what stalks the horizon. Marcus’s fiction feels less speculative than gnostic; the commonplace is rendered fantastic, monstrous through his characters’ failure to comprehend or even meaningfully engage with their world — everyone here is subject to circumstance like pawns in the hands of an indifferent god — and through Marcus’s prose, which refuses to endow this world with logic. Everything happens as if only by authorial hand, and so, say, the bickering of an unhappy couple assumes the wastrel drama of Beckett: these people don’t know who they are, where they are, why they are fighting. 

Marcus’s new collection, Notes from the Fog, is the most traditionally realistic entry into his canon. With the exception of one experimental foray, all of the stories feature the traditional elements of plot, character, and setting, and all are concerned with foundational adult experiences — marriage, parenting, and work life. It’s clear to longtime readers of Marcus that these are his preoccupying themes — the atrophy of family life, the brand of ugliness, the dread and boredom of the office. However, in Marcus’s world, reality is a malign, suspicious thing. He takes issue with the term itself in the Harper’s essay, ironically juxtaposing it to his own “experimental” work, protesting, “If literary titles were about artistic merit and not the rules of convention, about achievement and not safety, the term ‘realism’ would be an honorary one, conferred only on writing that actually builds unsentimentalized reality on the page, matches the complexity of life with an equally rich arrangement in language.” Here, the complexity of life is matched with language that baffles, frustrates, and elevates notions of what is frightfully real and of what, uncannily, can be. 

Marcus is a connoisseur of anxiety — degrees, types — and his stories rarely indulge in anything sunnier. But anxiety is not cynicism, and it’s clear that Marcus cares about his subjects. Despite a total lack of moralizing in the stories themselves, Marcus is a powerfully moral writer. The narrator of the first story in the collection, “Cold Little Bird,” is a father struggling to connect to his suddenly cruel, standoffish son. He consoles himself, unconvincingly, that “[children] push you away to see how much it would take to really lose you.” Writers do the same. How bad a marriage can you write before it breaks? What share of soul can your characters forsake for work and go on living? How pathetic can you write a father before it’s pointless to call him a man? A writer tests the limits because he fears the tipping point, and Marcus’s preoccupation with these themes demonstrates how seriously he takes them. The black hole at the heart of these stories, the lack of insight, self-determination, and sympathy allowed to these characters, argues forcefully for the need of those qualities these characters lack.

In mood and tenor, the work-centric stories conjure the malaise of 2:00 p.m. on a Tuesday, suffered under the florescent lights of an office ripe with the scent of industrial carpet; only the reader soon comes to learn it’s really 2:00 a.m., that the lights are radioactive, the carpet is emitting a toxic vapor, and that someone, many people, have deliberately orchestrated these elements. Four of the 13 stories are set in and around Thompson Lord, a medical research lab specializing in such perversities as nutrition-emitting computer screens (that disfigure the test subject), identity-altering powdered inhalants (tested on unwitting employees), pills that regurgitate themselves, and snake oil lotions that do many awful and off-prescription things. The company name is familiar to longtime readers of Marcus from his most idiosyncratic work, the formally rigorous 1995 collection The Age of Wire and String. A collection composed of short taxonomic vignettes with corresponding glossaries of neologisms, the book feels like an anthropological survey of a world that seems to correspond — by broken mirror, through foreign idiom — to everyday suburban life. The word “thompson” appears in one of the glossaries as an honorific meaning supreme leader. The vignette in which the word appears is titled “Religion.” What is technology to us now but ersatz dogma? Who are our kings?

The frightful thing about the Thompson stories aren’t the products themselves but how passively the employees submit to testing. Permanent disfiguration, total loss of self, and much bodily pain register nothing louder than grumbles. The parallels with the real-world consuming public and our tolerance of upending technologies) are many, and it’s to the book’s credit that each instance of submission feels genuine and frightful even though they’re all as inevitable as the line around the Apple store each time an iPhone is released. The plausibility of some of these products — mood-altering lotion, for one — is unnerving too, chiefly because it highlights how strange the products we already covet are. If Marcus described a device, a pocket-sized tracker that maps the geographic, financial, and social topography of your life, capturing every move, purchase, and communication you make and then monetizing that information by leveraging it into deeply researched, psychologically targeted advertisements seamlessly imbedded into the virtual landscape of the device, a landscape you’ve been acculturated to use for most of your purchases and communications, would you recognize the device as an iPhone? It leaves you wondering how strange, really, mood-altering lotion is compared to what we already consume. Even the most bizarre and dangerous of these goods come across as believable, not because we’re likely to see them on the market but because ours is a society that rewards and embraces innovation unthinkingly. We may not be able to make radioactive, nutrition-emitting computer screens at the moment, but if we could, someone would sell them, and many would buy them.

In one way or another — never an unworried way — most of these stories are concerned with family. Some families laze under an oppressive brume of apathy while others prickle with terror, and always something transcendently dreadful stalks unspoken, unspeakable. In “Blueprints for St. Louis,” a couple, professional memorial architects, talk past one another as though each were already dead to the other, failing even to listen attentively to themselves, while sketching out their submission for a monument to be placed at the site of yet another incident of mass violence. The couple’s past success and consequent intimacy with memorial commissions leads one of them to find it “hard to view any other kind of design commission — for a vanilla-white office building in their own downtown Chicago, for example — as anything other than a future headstone, a kind of sarcophagus that would briefly house living, glistening people before they were lowered into the earth or scattered out over the lake in a burst of powder. If you were an architect, you designed tombs, for before or for after.” The marriage fairs poorly.

Fathers remain ineffectual or absent. Or disappeared, as in “A Suicide of Trees,” which details the aftermath of an investigation into the unexplained vanishing of a patriarch. Resonating with “The Father Costume,” a novella-length story appearing in Leaving the Sea, the final paragraphs of the story imagine the absent man as a costume to be undressed, torn at even, if only to see whether there’s flesh underneath:

Nathaniel Hawthorne said that each question we ask is a costume for fear. We spend a lifetime getting out of costume, removing layer after layer, but most of us, he says, run out of time. We die too soon, still wearing the mask, the cloak, the cape, the paint on our faces. What can we do for our friends but help them along in this endless, complicated disrobing? … Piece by piece we take that man apart.

Questions are posed: why did you leave? What am I to you? What is a father to anyone? Marcus offers no answer other than this: a father is a thing that fails. A father himself, Marcus seems less cynical about fatherhood than consumed by anxiety that no one can live up to its monumental responsibilities.

The most nightmarish story of the lot, “Omen” follows a childless husband secreting himself around the neighborhood during a flood evacuation, laying the groundwork to kidnap a young girl. “What you’re trying to do is make yourself whole. Which it’s stupid to think another person’s bones can’t help you with.” Whatever he has on the mind, whether rape or parenting, it’s a sinister acquisition: she’ll have no say in it. 

Women get their say too. Yet the female narrators navigate a different flavor of anxiety than their male counterparts, characterized more by frustrated yearning than outright desperation. They haven’t been hoarding happiness from the men. Mothers are separated from their children by death; sisters are separated from their brothers by wealth and high crimes, and while sex is more possible for them than for the men — Marcus’s male narrators tend to be physically repulsive — it’s transactional, perfunctory. No perspective is privileged in a Marcus story; no person wise, and only the unloved make it out alive.

“Precious Precious,” the second story in the collection, marks the first of Marcus’s collected short stories to feature a female narrator. About half of the stories in the collection are narrated by women. Ida, a Thompson Systems tech, who’s adrift within the company, lost among her coworkers, one of whom is forever arranging liaisons in which he can’t perform (she doesn’t much care one way or the other), others of whom chastise her and every other childless woman within earshot about the transformative virtues of motherhood:

People with kids tended to look at Ida with a mixture of envy and derision, which wasn’t so different from how she looked at herself. Right now one of them had singled her out. “I say this as a friend, as someone who just, like, completely loves you, I mean just as you are. You are amazing. Really. But you are nothing without kids. I’m sorry, it’s true. I’m so sorry!”
“Hear, hear,” a few of them said. “Well put.”

All of the women in Notes from the Fog are fighting and failing to justify to themselves the simple fact of their existence. That passage continues:

She looked down at her hands, made little fists, held up her fingers as if she’s never seen them before. Hadn’t one of the big-time philosophers thrown himself from a window in order to prove that he existed?

But formlessness doesn’t mean heartlessness, and while moments of genuine sentiment — unclouded affection, love — are rare in Marcus’s world, they only ever exist between a mother and her children. “The Boys” follows a nameless woman who travels to the home of her recently deceased sister to, ostensibly, put in order those things that must be put in order after a death. Her dead sister’s husband is nearly catatonic with grief, incapable of assuming responsibility, even for his suddenly motherless boys. He asks her to take them in. It’s clear that she will, but in the scene before her plans for them take shape, she walks the boys to their bus stop, chats with them about the possibility of moving in with her. The youngest boy asks whether their mother will be there, wherever it is they might be going. 

“No, honey, she won’t.”
“Someone at the funeral tried to tell me where she is, but it was hard to picture.”
“I know. I can’t picture it either.”
“Does it have a name?”
“It might. Should we make up a name for it?”
He made a face. “I don’t like to make up things. I’m not a baby.”
“Okay.”
“I want to know the real name.”

I found myself telling them that I would try to find out. I would look into it. I promised that I would do my best but that it might be very difficult.

“There is no real name,” the big one told the little one. “She’s gone forever.” And the little one whispered that he knew that, he wasn’t stupid.

I kissed them both and they ran off to the bus, and when they got on, they rushed to the back and pressed their faces against the glass, waving at me.

Heaven is formless, hard to picture, a fantasy, an adult lie. It can’t even be named. But for a while, a few years maybe, until the boys reach their teens and become, as the narrator’s own teenagers, “so grown-up, so gone from me in every way,” the generosity of pretending things will turn out all right is still possible — a somber grace. 

In these stories, motherhood isn’t, as Ida’s coworker chides her, the exclusive font of content and meaning in one’s life. It doesn’t unburden you of circumstance, nor does it save you from the drudgery of being yourself. But it has its moments. And it’s a hell of a lot better than being a father.

A few stylistic quirks pop up for the first time in this collection, and a few have carried over from the earlier ones. Like in Marcus’s 2014 collection, Leaving the Sea, the stories that open and end the collection are written in a looser, more conversational style, heavily peppered with curse words and stylistic haws, while the interior stories feature tighter, more abstract prose. It’s unclear what to make of this choreographing, whether it’s a peculiarity of Marcus’s personal tastes or whether he’s attempting something like a peeling of the costume with the boggled mind and broken heart at the core. It’s hard to believe that Marcus’s prose could unwittingly slip from the austere rigor of The Age of Wire and String to the colloquial tone at play in the opening and closing stories here, as though his own tastes are so capacious that both styles are just as appealing to him. I suspect Marcus of a sort of epistemological inversion: the outer stories are told such that the common is made strange, while the inner stories are strange tales that concern, one learns upon close reading, the common. How to best know a thing? First inhabit it. Then look at it from the outside. Implied in that idea is the belief that Marcus finds the less immediately surreal stories no less realistic than those with plots and mothers and fathers. Unique to this collection, Marcus’s characters routinely indulge in sardonic repetition. “Kipling Kipling Kipling.” “…the boys the boys the boys…” “Afraid afraid afraid.” “…holy holy holy…” Much that is said bears repeating or resists interpretation and so cannot be fathomed, only repeated. And then, too, everyone is very, very, very tired. 

The title of this collection neatly summarizes the position Marcus takes as a writer, the psychic location where he sets up camp. Marcus has inhabited the fog, has populated it, his whole career: the brume of anxiety, indifference, and incommunicability that hangs over everything human. His prose shines a light no further than just beyond our reach. 

“It should concern us more than it does — how little we know, how little we are trying to find out,” he writes in the titular story. What does Ben Marcus want us to know about our world? That it’s stranger than imagined, as strange as imagination, and that nothing’s so strange as the everyday? I think so. But I don’t know for sure. Maybe he doesn’t know. Maybe he just wants to say something true about us while we’re still here. 

“You’ve driven by houses like ours, and maybe you’ve wondered just how the surrender happened inside.”

We have wondered. And so has Marcus. But he hasn’t told us. And he isn’t going to. Still, he has something to show you.

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