Skip to main content

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "The Dark Arts" by Ben Marcus

Each week I review the short fiction in a recent issue of The New Yorker. I learned it from watching you, Dad! I learned it from watching you.

Issue: May 20, 2013

Story: The Dark Arts

Author: Ben Marcus

Plot: A young man, Julian, with a chronic autoimmune disease spends a short period of time in Dusseldorf, Germany. It is the final leg of a medical tourism trip throughout western Europe with his girlfriend, Hayley. He  and Hayley have had a fight at some point prior, and he has come to Dusseldorf alone. He waits for her while he goes to a clinic every day for his treatments. Finally, she shows up.

Review: This is a difficult story to unpack. It takes place almost completely in Julian's mind, as he interprets everything about his life -- his illness, his surroundings, his memories, his conversations with this father, his relationship with Hayley, even his very existence -- through the lens of his depression. And Julian's is truly a manifold and dizzyingly hopeless depression. Marcus' treatment of Julian's seemingly inexhaustible capacity for self-hatred is, in and of itself, almost irritatingly accurate. To be stuck inside Julian's mind, even for twenty minutes, is torture.

Julian is allergic to himself; he says as much in the story. But he seems to be allergic to himself on a physical and mental level. Physically, his body is killing itself; it is fighting back against some problem in his blood stream. Mentally, he is miserable. Moreover, it's not clear whether he's depressed because he's physically sick, or if he's physically sick because he's so depressed. In one way of reading the story, the answer to his depression has to do with confusion about his sexuality.

Not only is his body at odds with itself, but he is at odds with himself about something else. He seems almost unable to accept love in any form. He looks with scorn and contempt upon his father's caring and largess throughout the years. It's also pretty evident in the story that his relationship with his girlfriend Hayley is kind of a "lark." He is trying her out...."Through it all though, he had mostly tried Hayley, as in really, really tried her." This could mean that he has "tried Hayley's patience," which presents a different angle. But I prefer to read it as he is trying her like someone might try a new style of facial hair.

It's really not clear whether Hayley is gone because she's mad at Julian, or if Julian is trying to escape her. But one thing is clear: Julian is staying at a men's hostel and, at night, a man tries to get into bed with him and have sex with him. He is at first repulsed, then repulsed at himself for not being repulsed enough, and then, after reuniting with Hayley briefly, he goes back to the hostel in search of a homosexual encounter.

Maybe, in his desperation for some kind of genuine experience, some trip outside his own mind, he is merely "trying" homosexuality much as he is trying Hayley. This is possible. In fact, that is more likely the case than that he is a closeted gay and he's all of a sudden decided to come out in a German hostel. He's probably just trying something, anything, to feel alive again.

In any case, the story is an interesting case study in the egotism of self-loathing and how it distances a person from his loved-ones and the world. In spite of his illness, I found it hard to feel sympathy for Julian. One can understand how years of suffering through his (real or perceived and to what degree) illness have warped his mind--and I think he would even admit this--but it's still hard to like him. He does not seem willing to accept any love or lightness or adventure into his life until the very end, when he seeks those things in the hostel.

Naturally, death is another huge theme of this story. Marcus uses death references the way a painter might use a particular color; if he were painting this story, the canvas would be mostly black. This is further proof of Julian's depression and his obsession with his insignificance in the universe. He does not focus on the joy that is to be found in life, but rather the negative. Perhaps, trapped in a diseased body as he is, it has become harder and harder to keep the blackness at bay, until it has nearly consumed him.

We have here a portrait, a study, of a young man's mind and indeed his entire existence crippled by illness. Whether that illness is one of the mind, the spirit, or the body, is left open to interpretation. Perhaps it is all three. Perhaps the three are inextricably tied. We cannot know. But in terms of producing a visceral experience to go along with the story on the page, Marcus has succeeded here.


Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Apologizer" by Milan Kundera

Issue: May 4, 2015

Rating: $$

Review: It took me five years and three separate attempts to finish Milan Kundera's famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but in spite of that, quotes and insights from that book still rattle round my head on a weekly basis. What I mean to say is: my feelings on Kundera are very similar to my feelings on Haruki Murakami. I enjoy reading his work, but in small doses, like this short story.

Like Murakami, Kundera uses elements of magical realism, but where in a Murakami story you might encounter a flying dolphin or a disappearing hotel or a person who has lived his whole life in the same room, refusing to leave, Kundera's magical realism offers more direct insights and perspective on real life.

In Kundera's worlds, time and space are malleable and everything that ever happened in history is happening at the same time, and the narrator is a completely omniscient, caring, witty, and hands-on god-like being.

And so it is with "The Apo…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Meet the President!" by Zadie Smith

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. If you told me when I was 12 that I'd be doing this I'd have been like, "Dork. There's no such thing as blogs," and I'd have been right...

Issue: Aug. 12 & 19, 2013

Story: "Meet the President!"

Author:Zadie Smith

(Please note: I've developed a highly sophisticated grading system, which I'll be using from now on.  Each story will now receive a Final Grade of either READ IT or DON'T READ it. See the bottom of the review for this story's grade...after you've read the review, natch.)

Plot: Set in England, far into the future (lets say 2113) a privileged youth of 15, named Bill Peek, encounters a few poor villagers from a small, abandoned coastal town on the southeast shore. He meets a little girl named Aggie, who is going to her sister's funeral. Peek is cut-off from real life by a sophisticated video game system that is implanted in his head, therefore th…

A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he r…