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by Ben Marcus

Pub Date: Jan. 8th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-307-37938-2
Publisher: Knopf

Fifteen tales of modern anxiety that display Marcus’ range, from angry realism to mind-bending allegory.

Marcus (The Flame Alphabet, 2012, etc.) front-loads his latest collection with four works of unabstracted, relatively frictionless storytelling. “What Have You Done?” tracks a man at a misery-filled family reunion, unable to address what’s estranged him (a sex crime is implied) but unable to explain his rehabilitation either. In “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” a writing teacher’s gig on a cruise ship only underscores his sourness. And “The Dark Arts” and “Rollingwood” deal with men at awful turning points, one being treated for a blood disorder in a German facility, the other raising a toddler while his estranged wife is absent and his job collapses. All dour themes explored by dour men, but Marcus has mastered a bitterly comic tone and a level of psychological insight that make the characters more than repositories of middle-age rage. The remaining stories play more freely with tone and structure, with varying degrees of success. “The Loyalty Protocol,” which focuses on a community that responds to an unnamed apocalyptic shift with constant drills and brutal exclusionary tactics, evokes the chilling tone of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” But in stories like “The Father Costume,” in which people “speak” in cloth, or “Origins of the Family,” where bones are society’s chief construction material, Marcus pushes metaphor to its breaking point, making for sketches that are more intriguing than evocative. He gets to have it both ways, though, in the closing story, “The Moors,” a slow-motion study of a man’s trip to his office’s coffee cart. Its focus on picayune detail and a synapse-firing–by–synapse-firing exploration of the protagonist’s despair suggests Nicholson Baker in a sour mood. But the effect is at once smart, claustrophobic and comic.

Thoughtful, sometimes-exasperating, boundary-pushing fiction.