Notes from the Fog, the latest story collection from Ben Marcus, gathers pieces from a seemingly arbitrary span of time, and the result is not a strong demonstration of the author’s talent.
Short story collections have an unenviable task that, more often than not, tend to be their undoing: The pieces assembled must work well both together and individually. Such collections can be revelatory, but, unfortunately, most, failing to meet such criteria, are uneven. Notes from the Fog, the latest story collection from Ben Marcus, gathers pieces from a seemingly arbitrary span of time, and the result is not a strong demonstration of the author’s talent.
Why these stories? For Marcus, certain reasons present themselves, such as overlapping themes: of domestic life, as in “Cold Little Bird” and “The Boys,” and of marital and familial conflict, as in “Precious Precious” and “Blueprints for St. Louis.” The apocalypse, or something like it, creeps around the edge of these stories, as it does in most of Marcus’s fiction. The indignities of (white collar) work under capitalism are woven throughout, as are the abuses of capitalism on the natural world. Marcus even invents a fictional company – Thompson – that runs through several stories and suggests itself in others. It is admirable that the pieces collected here feel as though they all take place in the same world: A world like our own, only more so.
Marcus’ greatest gift as a writer is his ability to render banal tasks and life-work in a radically dissociative way. He is classically surrealist, prone to juxtapose seemingly absurd images to create an atmosphere of hyper-reality. It is not an absurdity merely for the sake of comedy, or nonsense (though it can be funny and borderline-nonsensical), but an absurdity that makes the world more real, that uncovers the darkness of it all – the looming fatality behind every moment.
He brings this gift to bear most forcefully and effectively in “Critique,” the best story here. It opens by describing a hospital that has “occurred” on an island. “The building,” Marcus writes, “was fashioned, rather quaintly, of matter. Bricks, windows, smoke. The hospital used flesh traditionally – draped over the anguished little need machines we call people. Space was pushed through rooms, to keep them from collapsing, or so it seemed.” Using the language of artistic critique, the narrator examines this hospital – the question of its status as a functioning hospital or conceptual art exhibit becomes blurry, impossible for the reader to resolve. It is one of those rare stories that changes the way the reader looks at the world.
Notes from the Fog is regrettably a patchy work as a whole. A few memorable, tightly-wound stories stand out, like “Lotion,” which serves as a kind of origin story for the strange ointments characters rub on themselves in several different stories, and “A Suicide of Trees,” a bizarre detective story whose central mystery becomes the investigator himself. Yet these are the exceptions. “Cold Little Bird” is about a young boy who suddenly goes, well, cold, on his parents. The question of whether he is simply growing up or whether something is deeply wrong with him puts his parents at odds. While this is fertile ground for Marcus’s re-making of the real, the narrative voice falls flat. At one point, trying to reconcile with his wife, the father (and narrator) thinks he ought to “apologize so hard it leaks from her body. Then drink the liquid. Or use it in a soup. Whatever.” Whatever, indeed. This lazy, tossed-off language leaves the oozing image ineffective. The story itself is too slack to survive without the full power of that language.
Marcus’ facility for language is frequently on full display here, but too often these passages are buried in stories that lack surprise, or event, or simply overstay their welcome. Too many characters sputter out after a few pages in stories three or four times as long. “The Boys” and “Stay Down and Take It” are dreary, uninteresting domestic tales of a piece with “Cold Little Bird.” Stories like “Precious Precious” and “The Trees of Sawtooth Park” have indelible passages that start to drown in the mediocre distance between eventfulness and reverie until Marcus makes things strange once again.
It would be incorrect to assert that Marcus’s rise in the writing world – he now teaches at Columbia University – has led him to sand down the rough edges of his past work. He has always explored the domestic alongside the weird and written accomplished, extended works in this vein, like his novel The Flame Alphabet, in which the speech of children becomes toxic to all but themselves. This ability, however, fails him across much of Notes from the Fog, particularly when he aims for the subtle instead of the grotesque. Short story collections, whatever else they may be, are snapshots of the writer in a given span of time. This collection, succeeds, at least, in that one endeavor, capturing an uncertain creative period for the artist.