Book review: Notes From The Fog, by Ben Marcus

Ben Marcus
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There are many different emotions and reactions that pass into a reader when reading the work of Ben Marcus. You can wonder at his emotional acuity; you can be dazzled by the intellectual brilliance; you can savour the subtle lyricism of each and every sentence. But in me his work induces a kind of queasy vertigo, and I do not mean that as a bad thing. A book than can create such a visceral response is a rare thing indeed. These stories have that roller-coaster sense of both excitement and nausea. Once you have read them, it is wondrous to unpick how he manages such effects.

Notes From The Fog continues many of the themes that were present in The Flame Alphabet and Leaving The Sea. There is a lot of illness. There is dislocation. There is the atrophy of feeling. The opening sentences of the opening story, “Cold Little Bird”, outline his terrain. “It started with bedtime. A coldness. A formality.” As a vaguely WASPy couple tuck in their child, he responds by asking them not to, and then, upping the ante, telling them he does not love them. There is something of Shirley Jackson or Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the chiselled nature of those little words. “Bedtime” does not segue into “coldness”; the idea of a cuddle and a kiss is at odds with “formality”. The story unspools with unspecified horror as the child almost goads his parents with his determined opposition to reciprocate love. I don’t think I’ve read a nastier thing all year. Oh, hang on, I have – the very next story and every one thereafter in this collection.

“The Boys”, in which a woman goes to help out with the childcare of her deceased sister’s family, is particularly gruesome. Her relationship with her brother-in-law becomes sexual in a way which is simply chilling. He pays her. She worries that she cannot pleasure herself with the family in the house. “I realized that I was masturbating two people… for the sheer sake of efficiency, just following the logic, I could reduce this work-load by 100%, saving time and effort, without forfeiting our mutual outcomes, simply by having intercourse with [him]”. The ghastly frostiness of the voice is announced at the outset. “Speech is so overused. The language will grow meaningless if we abuse it. Let’s leave words alone so they won’t erode. Maybe it’s already too late.” The combination of the clinical tone and the emotional vacuity is almost unbearable.

There are a number of stylistic tricks that Marcus deploys which serve to unsettle the reader. They also give a cohesion to the collection as a whole, serving as sort of leitmotifs across the works. One is a strange use of triple repetition. In “The Grow Light Blues”, the narrator, a subject of medical experimentation, talks of “rain, rain, rain, ash, fire, murder, murder, rain”. In “Omen”, the sinister Fowler stalks his pray in a waterlogged city, obsessed with “The girl, the girl, the girl”. In “George and Elizabeth”, a story where the therapist openly refers to her client as a monster, there is “Afraid, afraid, afraid. Don’t be afraid”. The person undergoing medical testing in “The Trees of Saw-tooth Park” murmurs “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus”. The tolling nature of these little litanies is almost paranoid. The words seems to shift meaning and connotation as they come around again. This is linked to an almost signature Marcus device, whereby sentences contain a proposition and its own opposite. The narrator of “The Grow Light Blues” is in a state where things are “obvious and mysterious, inevitable and random… ashamed and indifferent”. Of the unheimlich character whose father and lodger have disappeared in the sort-of-thriller story – who seems like a more ambiguous version of Norman Bates in Psycho – we are told that when the detective arrives “he is distracted, he is sad, he is happy, he is handsome and witty, he repulses me”. This fundamentally disorientates the reader. It is as if there is no safe space in the sentence on which to place one’s foot. In some stories there are salves, technologies, procedures which are described specifically and ambiguously at the same time. In the excellent “The Trees of Saw-Tooth Park”, an experiment to catalogue, digitally, emotions, leads the principal character to reflect that the work “taunted us on the horizon, brown and long and suspiciously moist”. You can’t visualise that in any coherent sense, but it does give a frisson that is indescribably apt. (It also has a truly dreadful tang of something filthy).

I do not know of any writer who writes like Marcus. His work is sui generis. But the genius of the collection is that despite the opaque and baroque style, it packs a punch about loneliness, obsession, illness, grief and suffering. He is the great pathologist of contemporary letters: from the Greek meaning the study of pain. In these stories, language buckles and twists in an attempt to convey what the pain of others might be like.

Notes From The Fog, by Ben Marcus, Granta, £12.99