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New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Grow Light Blues" by Ben Marcus

Issue Date: June 22, 2015

Story: "The Grow Light Blues" by Ben Marcus

Rating: $$$

Review: Sometime in the not-too-distant but disproportionately effed-up future (and era about which I love to read) Carl Hirsch works for a tech startup testing the latest form of nutrition delivery system: a human grow light. Carl is weaned off solid food and even liquid food, save for a once-a-week smoothie to prevent him from dying of starvation, so that his company can test the grow-light on him. Daily he is blasted with searing beams of light to his face that feel like they are tightening his skin and disfiguring him...which they are. Deprived of food and blasted with high beams of light all day, Carl begins to unravel as his body rebels and his mind sinks to impossible levels of sadness and depression. He is fired from the experiment after he inexplicably sends a picture of his scrotum to the entire company. He "retires" to be the groundskeeper of a grade school and eventually falls in love -- despite his disfigurement -- and has a kid.

Ben Marcus seems to love to write about the chronically ill and/or hopelessly depressed (see "The Dark Arts" TGCB, 5/30/13) and in his hands such characters make great material. Carl is not so depressed or sad as to be uninteresting and/or unwilling to poke fun at himself, and so "The Grow Light Blues" is infused with a healthy dose of self-conscious, self-deprecating humor. Carl carries his disfigurement, and indeed his entire existence even before the grow light, as a sort of heavy, painful weight that he has to bear until he dies, but he bears it with a dark sense of humor and irony that makes it tolerable and helps him get by, as when he responds with flimsy and affected folksiness to his co-worker's attempts to cheer him up:

"Everything we can't know," Carl said, shaking his head as cheerfully as he could. "Maybe it's time to cry uncle. Mysteries one, us nothing. We lose!...Anyway, it's what we signed up for, right?" Carl said, trying and failing to picture the exact moment when he'd agreed to take part in the experiment.

Here, Carl could just as easily be talking about existence itself, rather than the effects of the torturous grow light, and perhaps he is talking about existence itself.

In this way, Carl's torture under the lamps and his resulting disfigurement become a metaphor for the loss of one's youth due to time, the increasing weight of adult responsibilities, and the daily beatings that life can dole out to us. Even if not "beatings" per se, but just forced exposure to the bright lights of someone else's creation. the humbling and slow erosion of our childhood dreams, the simmering reality that most of us spend our lives in jobs we don't care about, around people who don't know us...okay, where's the Prozac?

But not to be left with the idea that Carl's spirit has been burned away completely, instead, what is left is, in fact, a kinder, gentler Carl who is capable of living a simple life and being a good partner:

...if Carl felt private or mean he knew to leave the house and pour out his cruelty in a safe place, where Maura [his partner] could not be hurt. Perhaps what was most animal in him had been cooked out by Kipler and his rig, burned or boiled or just reduced so that it hardly appeared.

Perhaps. Or perhaps successfully enduring the pain and suffering and grinding depression of his ordeal with the grow light has endowed Carl with virtues like patience, wisdom, and kindness, much like many of us -- if we are lucky -- outgrow a certain youthful impetuousness and frustration and selfishness after we've lived for a while, faced down some obstacles, and come to peace with ourselves and who we are.

The story concludes nicely, with Carl looking at his newborn son and hearkening back to a phrase his own mother had said about him as a child -- Someone new is among us. Someone special. -- something Carl always thought was trite and tired and worn-out, but which now, flushed with the love of a parent for his newborn child, he realizes has great significance.

Three $$$ rating because "The Grow Light Blues" manages to be darkly funny and extremely insightful at the same time. Not a feat that's easily pulled off. We are pulled in by Carl's craggy, self-flagellating, self-deprecating personality, into a comically twisted world that we can pretty clearly recognize as our own (with a decade or so tacked on), and then hit straight in the gut by genuine insights into life that have the ability to resonate beyond any single age or time period or arena of human experience. Damn good for a short story, I'd say.

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