Shape Made of Smoke: Ben Marcus’s “Notes from the Fog”
By Katie da Cunha LewinDecember 22, 2018
Notes from the Fog by Ben Marcus
American author Ben Marcus is interested in this omnipresent and slippery word “authenticity,” not as a real and tangible category, but as an ideal, a worry about how we can most be ourselves. The stories in his new collection Notes from the Fog are filled with individuals thinking about what they should be doing, what emotions they should be having, or how the structures in which they live, literal or otherwise, should be functioning. From the opening story, Marcus explores the problems of living among other people — scary, unpredictable, strange people — while trying to understand the rules of the game. Western society demands a certain kind of normativity, but as the collection explores, these demands are often confusing, taxing, or difficult to understand. Throughout the stories, Marcus is concerned with human feelings, but he does more than record them, or indeed celebrate them; instead, he dwells on our capacity for them in the first place. These narratives do not veer into trite liberal humanism, and, in fact, many of these stories are profoundly unsettling. Marcus’s writing is by turns extremely funny, affecting, and then disquieting, and as he moves seamlessly between these tones, his work accrues a strange mood like so much smoke. Something hangs over the collection in the form of a shapeless threat.
Though this delve into emotion is often situated within the context of the family, Marcus is at pains to show that family life can be just as frightening as anywhere else. In the opening story, “Cold Little Bird,” a little boy tells his parents, rationally and calmly, that he no longer loves them. His father, Martin, tries desperately to understand the announcement by his son that he would prefer he not touch or kiss him anymore. Martin and his wife try to negotiate the boy’s wishes and their own clearly unhappy relationship. In “The Boys,” a woman whose sister dies tries to feel that loss. She moves in with her sister’s husband and their children, helping to take care of them in their first few weeks of grieving. Her nephews are at first unsure of her; as she describes, “they seemed to regard me as an animal they could not ride.” But soon, the narrator learns how to interact with them, taking over their bedtimes and tucking them in at night. Here Marcus elucidates a particular physical language unique to young children:
I snuffed out the conversation with some tickling. The two of them were ridiculously easy prey. I could gesture at them, a snatching motion with my hand, not even touching them, and they would weep with laughter, protecting their soft spots, which was pretty much every part of them. The tickling was foreshadowed, and I almost didn’t even need to be in the room. I could hold up a single finger and they trembled. They were mine. I owned them. As I was doing it, triggering the most helpless giggles from these two little guys, I couldn’t help thinking how much I’d love to be able to end an adult conversation this way.
Marcus here marvels at the possibility of physical expression, and this passage gives way to other tender exchanges between the aunt and her two nephews. However, this tenderness does not extend toward her brother-in-law whom she ends up having sex with “[f]or the sheer sake of efficiency.” This unnerving logic emerges in her approach to sex itself: “Excess noise during intercourse is the sign of a decadent society.” For Marcus, the family unit is a place of undeniable mystery, where cruelty and love sit side-by-side and can turn into one another at any moment.
This concentration on feeling is curious because the stakes are often so minimal in these stories — characters seem so estranged that their responses seem muted, as if they are dazed or asleep. In “George and Elizabeth,” George is trying to contact his sister to tell her about the death of their father. The story opens on a therapy session, in which he tells his therapist: “I pay you to take it seriously. Which gives me room to deflect and joke about it and put my insecurities on display, which you should know how to decode and use in your treatment.” The individuals in Marcus’s stories are capable of astute observation while dismissing them in the following sentence. As the final story, “Notes from the Fog,” has it, “[E]very great insight is something to be embarrassed about later.”
Marcus posits a world in which scientific and technological advancements are armed with new levels of reach, as is described in “The Trees of Sawtooth Park”: “So, own the moods. Break all possible emotions down into chemical states, and simulate those states with drugs. Pretty simple.” Mists, powders, salves, ointments, and lotions are produced in labs and by companies, providing new shortcuts for particular kinds of emotional responses for specific situations or, less exactly, everyday life. In “Precious Precious,” Ida works for Thompson Systems — a name regularly used by Marcus for a corporation — and is offered a drug called Rally in a routine company physical. In reading about this drug, she finds a wide range of reviews: “It had changed and ruined people’s lives, they loved and hated it. They were indifferent and sad and happy, near death and reborn.” Ida begins taking the pill and discovers her great-grandfather had also been prescribed the same medication in the past for a condition simply called “estrangement.” Though a small piece of information, this detail serves to move the story from a tale of contemporary malaise into territory about a shared human experience found in distance and proximity. This experience of estrangement emerges throughout these narratives, and characters often seem to be nonplussed by these technological invasions. In both “Precious Precious” and “The Trees of Sawtooth Park,” staff are routinely experimented upon with a range of new chemicals, and this is treated as rote and mundane, even if the effects are often profoundly troubling. While clearly evoking the strange ethics of Western capitalism — in which depressingly neither the character nor the reader is much surprised to be experimented upon by nefarious chemicals — this experimentation reveals a desire for answers that cannot easily be found. To be “estranged” is not necessarily to be detached from the world around you, but instead to be in search of something you can’t quite put your finger on.
In “Blueprints for St. Louis,” Marcus looks to the public face of feelings in the form of emotions as a shared public event, and discussions around them after public tragedy. Roy and Helen, both architects, have been commissioned to design a memorial after a terrorist attack in the city, and they argue about how their creation can facilitate the correct kind of mourning. As with the other stories, mourning is facilitated by the dispersal of a “gentle mist to assist the emotional response of visitors and drug them into a torpor of sympathy.” Though Marcus chooses to insert his interest in technological emotional prosthesis in this story too, the narrative also dwells on the nature of any kind of grief, and the questions it provokes about the self. When Helen visits a cemetery, “she marvel[s] at the sight lines, at the effortlessly endless rows of dead, each name, each life, hollowed out in space.” In many ways, these rows of headstones are the perfect memorial human beings have always had; the symbol cannot be perfected through new buildings. Marcus seems to suggest that ideas and inventions cannot transform the process of grief.
The explosion that causes the terrorist attack in “Blueprints for St. Louis” comes from deep within the building itself; the perpetrators had embedded the explosives in the very foundations. This reads as a metaphor for writing itself, much like the description of writing in the last story, “Notes from the Fog”: “That’s what sentences do. Turn a man or a woman to powder.”
Building and destruction live together in this collection, two sides of the same unsettling coin. In “Critique,” Marcus carefully outlines the architecture of a hospital, almost an exact replica, an installation on a remote island. The piece seems to be a satire on art writing in which language can give a sense of something’s true value: “[Y]ou crawl into your highly vivid, full-scale bed made of real materials […] as you wait, perhaps forever, for more understanding.” But again, we are returned to authenticity; Marcus produces narratives of authenticity, not to feed in to discourse of the examples I listed earlier, but to suggest it as an impossible ideal in a self-conscious society. As a character asks: “But what did I feel? […] But really […] why was anyone ever expected to report accurately on their own feelings?” In this, Marcus presents a challenge to anyone interested in using literature as a kind of ointment, mist, or salve, like the ones that proliferate in his stories. This writing does anything but soothe.
Katie Da Cunha Lewin is a researcher and editor based in London. She has a PhD in literature, focusing on the novels of J. M. Coetzee and Don DeLillo. She is the co-editor of Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, published by Bloomsbury in October 2018.
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