Hope­less men and bro­ken spir­its

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - HOUMAN BAREKAT

NOTES FROM THE FOG BEN MAR­CUS Granta Books, 288pp, £12.99

Ben Mar­cus is best known for 2012’s The Flame Al­pha­bet, a cap­ti­vat­ingly weird dystopian novel about a mys­te­ri­ous plague that spreads via the speech of chil­dren. Sev­eral of the sto­ries in Notes from the Fog reprise that novel’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with mor­bid­ity and the life sci­ences. These tell of ob­scure pathogens and bizarre ex­per­i­ments, neb­u­lous mal­adies con­tracted by mys­te­ri­ous means, with a gloomy earnest­ness in­flected with prickly gal­lows hu­mour and wry satire. The Grow-Light Blues pokes fun at “life hack­ers” in the biotech mi­lieu: “a bunch of age­less kid-look­ing crea­tures … Early adopters of ev­ery health trend, en­thu­si­asts of untested med­i­cal pro­to­cols. They mi­cro-fasted, binged on su­per­foods, fussed over their own blood tests, which they posted cock­ily on the longevity mes­sage boards.”

Mar­cus’s pen­chant for creep­ing pre­sen­ti­ment el­e­vates these tales above run-of-the-mill spec­u­la­tive sci-fi, blend­ing noir sus­pense with brood­ing in­ward­ness in an el­e­gant prose style that is dis­tinc­tively his own. Clus­tered to­gether, how­ever, the more sci­en­tif­i­cally themed sto­ries be­come rep­e­ti­tious and lose some of their edge: hav­ing al­ready nailed this niche in The Flame Al­pha­bet, these short-form vari­a­tions feel like re­dun­dant off­shoots.

Of greater in­ter­est are a num­ber of sto­ries fore­ground­ing per­sonal re­la­tion­ships blighted by dis­tance and dis­con­nec­tion, with pro­tag­o­nists ad­just­ing to the ab­sences left by be­reave­ments, dis­ap­pear­ances or plain old loss of in­ter­est. The nar­ra­tor of The Boys vis­its her brother-in-law af­ter the death of her sis­ter, ini­tially to help out with kids and keep an eye on him. Grad­u­ally she fills in for her sis­ter in ev­ery de­part­ment, in­clud­ing the bed­room. The shift is purely me­chan­i­cal and ut­terly de­void of fris­son; things just set­tle into place be­cause na­ture ab­hors a vac­uum.

Mar­cus does a good line in hope­less men. In Pre­cious Pre­cious an in­ad­e­quate lover, hav­ing un­der­per­formed in a sex­ual en­counter, pesters his in­amorata for a “re­match” on the grounds that he has been get­ting the prac­tice in; she dis­misses his of­fer, let­ting him down gen­tly with a batch of gener­i­cally pleas­ant emo­jis. Else­where a mar­ginal char­ac­ter is de­scribed as “a man who seemed to have been de­signed, by ex­perts, to em­body sor­row and re­gret”.

In Ge­orge and El­iz­a­beth, a cor­po­rate high-flier tells her un­der­achiev­ing brother about her sex­ual pref­er­ence for beta males. She’s into “the house hus­band type. Self-ef­fac­ing, gen­er­ous, asex­ual … Men with low T, who go to bed in a full rack of pa­ja­mas”. Ge­orge, it tran­spires, is so lonely that he pays a “watcher” – a porn ac­tor by the pun­ningly mar­vel­lous name of Ge­orge Fox – just to watch him, via his lap­top, as he goes about his do­mes­tic chores.

In Blue­prints for St Louis a woman is alien­ated by her part­ner’s gym ad­dic­tion: “Roy was tech­ni­cally hand­some, but he preened, and he moped, and he fished for so many com­pli­ments that He­len was fished out, empty, un­able to spray any favourable speech over his prim, needy body.”

Mar­cus is a bril­liant anatomist of es­trange­ment, but if Notes from the Fog presents a rather grim carousel of bro­ken spir­its, flac­cid mem­bers and lost con­nec­tions, it also of­fers a glim­mer of re­as­sur­ance: the char­ac­ters slot into im­per­fect so­lu­tions, tak­ing com­fort where they can get it. Ida, the pro­tag­o­nist of Pre­cious Pre­cious, set­tles into an ar­range­ment with Donny be­cause “His si­lence made her feel good and safe, and she looked for him ... to mute some larger ruckus that seemed to be stalk­ing her”.

The Grow-Light Blues ends with Maura and Carl get­ting to­gether and ek­ing out a life of “man­age­able sor­row”, based not on love but mu­tual util­ity: “If their in­ti­macy could feel turn-based and a lit­tle like a chore, just friends be­stow­ing fa­vors, like old women do­ing each other’s hair.”

The nar­ra­tor of A Sui­cide of Trees ob­serves that his late fa­ther’s part­ner “has lost a mourner’s share of weight and her face has taken on the deep creases of an old man’s bot­tom”. He believes the old man’s pass­ing was an act of gen­eros­ity de­signed to en­able him to thrive, repli­cat­ing a phe­nom­e­non whereby “old-growth trees are known to suck poi­son from deep in the earth in or­der to weaken them­selves, just as the baby saplings around them re­quire more room to grow”. Here, again, the pat­terns of the nat­u­ral world are trans­posed on to hu­man ex­is­tence to evoke a sense of cos­mic or­der.

The so­cial world ap­pears in Notes from the Fog as a self-cor­rect­ing ecosys­tem that is ul­ti­mately ro­bust. It is bleak as hell, but peo­ple mud­dle through; life, af­ter a fash­ion, goes on.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JEREMY SUT­TON-HIBBERT/GETTY IM­AGES

Ben Mar­cus: a bril­liant anatomist of es­trange­ment.

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