Notes from the Fog by Ben Marcus review – brilliantly bleak short stories
Laughter echoes through medical and corporate dystopias as well as suburban living rooms in this impressive American collection
“As you live your life,” remarks one narrator in Ben Marcus’s brutal and brilliant story 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 father in his care home and tells him that his ex-wife is ill. “Illness is the only category,” he says, and later, wandering the halls, Ida confronts the stark truth of that statement: “She saw people in beds all alone, connected to bags, mouths agape, struggling to breathe. She saw men in ill-fitting gowns, sprawled on the floor. Women 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, a characteristic blend. Despite his predilection for life’s darker currents, laughter 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’ shadow. “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 stories 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 graves where people could gather and where maybe really cool food trucks would also park”. Synergistic deals are struck with pharma companies for the chemical fillip that has become part of the expected experience, “a gentle mist to assist the emotional response of visitors 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 thoughts, or dispense with the need to eat by delivering nutrients via the blue light 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.”
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