American writer Ben Marcus exemplifies the practice of what the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky called estrangement, a tactic to stop the shorthand of everyday language from destroying our vividness of perception. “In order to return sensation to the limbs”, Shklovsky thought we must describe an object or incident “as if it were happening for the very first time”. Marcus took this to extremes in his debut book, The Age of Wire and String (1995), which was a series of short texts, as if taken from instruction and religious manuals, describing a world both eerily familiar and shockingly unrecognisable. The writing is melodious and uncanny: “The ones that never got born were poured into the water. Throughout the years they built skin to be inside, and holes were introduced by the wind gun.” Readers made anxious by the opaque should steer clear.
Marcus, who has taught creative writing at Columbia University for the past 18 years, is also author of two further novels — Notable American Women (2002) and The Flame Alphabet (2012) — which have both continued his argument against realism. Eschewing the elements of fiction that tend towards coherence — character dramatised through plot — they have a tendency towards academic sterility. It is in his short stories for mainstream magazines that his fiction becomes most vital, as the form forces him to accommodate his originality of expression with the need to be intelligible. Notes from the Fog is his second collection of stories, after Leaving the Sea (2014), and both contain stories that are his best work.
In “Cold Little Bird”, the first and most focused story, a 10-year-old boy makes a polite retreat from his parents’ affections, refusing their hugs and calmly informing his “soft, warm, dumb providers” that he doesn’t love them. The story proceeds with sickening logic and the blackest of comedy, as the boy sets about testing his power to provoke his Jewish father, who catches him reading a book called Lies to his younger brother; bought with his birthday gift card, it tells “how the Jews caused 9/11 and they all stayed home that day so they wouldn’t get killed”. Scenes of marital discord accelerate, and initiate a recurrent focus on partners who have lost a language to communicate with each other. “Shut down the pity party already,” says the wife in this story. People’s refusal to engage with the emotion of those closest to them is a recurrent theme: in “Precious Precious”, a father explains to his daughter, “Your sadness isn’t the issue here, Ida. That’s a distraction.”
Marcus’s writing drives always towards the unpalatable thought, and in this he resembles Mary Gaitskill at her scathing best. The son is sent to a counsellor who “looked like a man who had existed, for a very long time, on a strict diet of the feelings of children”. The narrator, talking to his son, “felt as if he were having a conversation with a lawyer. A lawyer, a scold, a little prick of a person.” But the repetition of certain stylistic tactics aimed at avoiding cliché ultimately creates new clichés, particularly in the way he describes the human with mechanical terms: over separate stories people are described as “fleshy need machines”, “a bag of need”, “piercingly boring need machines” and “anguished little need machines we call people”. Then we have “gray-faced cubicle worms”, “the usual gray meat that made up a man”, and an ageing body that had not yet “sloughed off a mild, gray powder from its lower parts”. At these moments his style greys itself with repetitive invention, and does not estrange the world in a way that lets us see it anew.
His stories are almost always better in their beginning sections, where he applies himself with scornful joy to character and setting. “Precious Precious” begins exuberantly: “It was late in the wretched season, and there was a sweet chill in the halls at Thompson Systems, where the future was getting fondled by some of the most anxious and self-regarding minds of Ida Grieve’s generation.” It is one of a number of stories set in tech and pharma corporations, and which involve medical trials. Pharmaceutical dislocation in these stories is symptomatic of societal anomie, driven by our flight from the actual to the virtual, from the atomisation of our relationships. This is the fog through which Marcus’s protagonists try to send their notes.
Readers will find some of the most thrilling and disturbing literary fiction of the year in this collection, though it is less successful as a whole than its best stories. Its unevenness makes one hope that Marcus might subject his own conventions to the same scrutiny to which he subjects those of realism.
Notes from the Fog, by Ben Marcus, Granta, RRP£12.99, 288 pages
Get alerts on Fiction when a new story is published