A new Ben Marcus book is an exciting event for a particular subset of readers – readers who’d happily gulp down a cocktail brewed from the distilled works of Donald Barthelme, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Philip Roth, and seasoned with a little early Denis Johnson. It’s a heady concoction. And Notes From The Fog doesn’t disappoint: it’s got all the bodily alienation, social angst, unnerving science, decaying language and anti-capitalism that today’s left-wing literary geek could ask for.
The opening story, ‘Cold Little Bird’, is, for want of a better word, the easiest: a son retreats emotionally from his parents, and the father struggles to cope. It’s conventional compared to Marcus’ usual output – language doesn’t collapse in on itself, the world itself isn’t literally (or even figuratively) toxic, there’s something like a straightforward plot – but it’s still recognizably his work: deeply isolated characters facing the terrible void of their own inadequacy. It captures the terror, the rage, the panic and thwarted love of parenting (and co-parenting), and though little actually happens, the child’s withdrawal triggers an emotional response on the reader that echoes the father’s. (Don’t go near this if you’ve got pre-teens…) It’s a very satisfying, if very unhappy story.
After he’s eased us in, however, Marcus thrusts us firmly into a territory that’ll be familiar to his fans and that recurs and intensifies throughout the book: the horrors of late capitalism as manifested, this time, through pharmaceutical firms competing for the final slice of social control until a disembodied posthuman version of living can kick in. Or, as Ida in ‘Precious Precious’ puts it, ‘for the time being they still had to endure the company of other fleshy need machines, human spouters and little bags of weepery’. Marcus’ characters are alienated not simply from each other, but from their own bodies and thoughts; they turn to pills and chemical mists to improve, distract and immolate themselves.
Their very environments echo their discontent: we’ve got devastating storms, memorials to atrocities, gruesome experiments in the workplace that make monsters of their helpless test-subjects. In ‘Precious Precious’, then, Ida tries and fails to rise above endurance and towards connection, via sex with a co-worker; in ‘Blueprints for St Louis’, architectural theory meets the death of the erotic, as the marriage between two architects finally fails – here, bodily eroticism is replaced by a new erotics of the built environment as Big Pharma bid for contracts to pump controlled emotion via a drugged mist into public spaces.
This is George Saunders, but with all hope leached away; here, speech and vision are inadequate, and all emotions are up for auction. ‘The Grow-Light Blues’ reintroduces a degree of optimism, but at the expense, again, of physical pleasure – Carl, an employee at yet another murky giant of technological experimentation, has had his face burned to a hardened crust by his co-workers, and nobody cares; when he walks away, he regains some measure of autonomy, but with a much-reduced ability to become intimate with other people. It’s a horrible story, and a sad one, but it’s tender, echoing the way the father in ‘Cold Little Bird’ clings onto his memories of his son’s early childhood. ‘Lotion’, again, explores social control through pharmaceuticals, but uses the fable format to do so.
The stories that don’t directly target politicised industry are still dealing in an alienation of the individual that can be read as a consequence of that culture – but while Marcus might have his thematic obsessions, he’s no one-trick pony: he’s a versatile and engaging writer. ‘Critique’ is a Barthelme-esque look at the city as a literal experiment; ‘The Boys’, in which a woman enters into a quasi-sexual relationship of convenience with her widowed brother-in-law, is not dissimilar to something Miranda July might concoct. ‘Stand Still and Take It’ – a bickering elderly couple flee a devastating storm – is a superb picture of a marriage, filled with love, hate, irritation and grace. ‘Omen’, about an older man obsessed with a young girl in his neighbourhood, was one of my favourites; it’s got all of Marcus’ stylistic trademarks – disquieting descriptions of bodily disgust and angst; terse, bleak humour; a world on the brink of collapse. Here’s Fowler, the narrator, on his neighbours:
‘The flood had come on hard yesterday, the answer to a season of mountain rain. They’d seen it coming, and all the clay-faces had been crying about it on the news. Whimper whimper out of their omen holes. Everybody run for the hills.’
And on the girl:
‘It was at the block party a year ago when his plan started to grow a sort of awful hair, and leak, and slobber all over him no matter what he did and where he went. Regarding the girl. The girl, the girl, the girl. Who created this inadequate language that rubbed all the detail off a thing and still ruled supreme as the primary currency people hurled at each other to make themselves known and whatnot?’
Any Cop?: If you’re after straight-up plots, you won’t like it, but if you’re prepared to relax your expectations on certain fronts you’ll find yourself more than rewarded on others. As good as his best work (and more accessible than The Flame Alphabet, if you struggled with that one).