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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.

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