Notes from the Fog by Ben Marcus review- brilliantly bleak short tales - Joseph Cettina

Notes from the Fog by Ben Marcus review- brilliantly bleak short tales

Laughter echoes through medical and corporate dystopias as well as suburban living rooms in this impressive American collection

” As you live their own lives ,” remarks one narrator in Ben Marcus’s brutal and brilliant tale collection,” you will, on occasion, be cut open and explored. It is what life is, part of the routine .” Elsewhere, a woman, Ida, visits her parent in his care home and tells him that his ex-wife is ill.” Illness is the only category ,” he says, and later, wandering the foyers, Ida confronts the stark truth of that statement:” She saw people in beds all alone, connected to pouches, mouths agape, struggling to breathe. She saw men in ill-fitting garments, sprawled on the floor. Girls with no hair, sobbing in their chairs .” Reading this, you won’t be surprised by Marcus’s own description of his stories, given at a recent event in London:” Some are grave and bleak, some are graver and bleaker .”

He was being at once funny and serious, specific characteristics mix. Despite his predilection for life’s darker currents, laugh does echo through the hospital wards, strip-lit offices and crisis-struck suburban homes he describes, although it’s usually the kind heard in the gallows’ darknes.” Along comes tomorrow, with its knives, as someone or other said ,” a woman tells herself. A quotation that didn’t occur to her, but would also fit, belongs to the pessimistic philosopher EM Cioran:” The interval separating me from my corpse is a wound “.

Marcus tends to set his tales an uncertain number of years in the future, perhaps one or two coils further along our species’ downward spiral. This is a world in which terror attacks on American soil have become so numerous that an architect couple can specialise in memorials:” large public tombs where people could assemble and where maybe really cool food trucks would also park “. Synergistic bargains are struck with pharma companies for the chemical fillip that has become part of the expected experience,” a gentle fog to assist the emotional response of guests and drug them into a torpor of sympathy “. It’s a world where privacy has been all but obliterated, and tech companies attempt to mine and monetise users’ emotions, or read thinks, or dispense with the need to eat by delivering nutrients via the blue sunlight of computer screens. That doesn’t go so well for guinea pig Carl:” The paint on the cubicle wall behind Carl’s head, which collected the light when he wasn’t sitting there, bubbled up and peeled .”

Ben
Ben Marcus … mordantly funny. Photo: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/ Getty Images

Marcus’s prose is deceptively straightforward, precise but chatty, and often a lot of fun- which is helpful, albeit in a confusing style, when the subject is the physical or psychological breakdown of a person, or even of society in general. In stylistic words he has come a long way from the disturbing, almost alien syntax of his earlier volumes, The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women , and his characters now feel less like malfunctioning parables and more like flesh and bone. His narrators are often despairing, but their hopelessnes is edged with a bemused sense of the absurd. Those who work in tech or pharma, or some godawful combination of both, are complicit in their own debasement, and their narratives are equal parts critique and confession.

Like WilliamBurroughs, and the George Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four , Marcus has a gift for letting terminology do a lot of the world-building work. The discourse of the society he describes is medical and corporate, and more apt to apply scientific lingo than risk giving space to ungoverned human feeling. He is unflinching on the hatred that can flare up within marriages, and devastating on the tensions between children and their parents. In” A Suicide of Trees”, the narrator, discussing “his fathers”, wonders why a young man should be” forced to look upon his own crippled future, in the form of an older man? What intent could that kind of darknes forecasting ever maybe serve ?”

In” Cold Little Bird” a similar sentiment might explain the decision of 10 -year-old Jonah to request that his parents stop conveying any affection towards him. He remains at home, but becomes withdrawn and self-sufficient. He has become a teenager early, and this tweak is enough to construction the situation deeply uncanny but also a clear-eyed portrait of the ways in which children do, sooner or later, reject and abandon their parents.

But Marcus’s fiction isn’t only upsetting or grimly amusing.” The Boys”, in which a woman goes to stay with her brother-in-law and his children after the death of her sister, is mordantly funny to begin with, but transforms into a very moving expres of human kindness and connect. In” Stay Down and Take It”, as a wife and husband flee an approaching cyclone, they watch a Tv reporter being knocked over by high winds.” For a moment, as she blows sideways off the screen and surrenders herself to flight, her posture is beautiful, so perfectly graceful. If you were falling from a cliff , no matter what awaited you, you might want to think about earning some style phases along the way, just turn your final descent into something stunning to watch .” Not long afterwards the couple was sleeping, espousing in their car parked beside a” black, bottomless abyss” that will swallow them afterward if it doesn’t swallow them now. Is this a bleak book? Absolutely. But there’s beauty in it, too.

* Chris Power’s Mothers is published by Faber. Notes from the Fog is published by Granta. To order a copy for PS11. 17( RRP PS1 2.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS10, online orders only. Phone orders min p& p of PS1. 99.

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