Hopeless men and broken spirits
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.
Ben Marcus: a brilliant anatomist of estrangement.