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New Yorker Fiction Review #119: "Cold Little Bird" by Ben Marcus

Issue: Oct. 19, 2015

Story: "Cold Little Bird" by Ben Marcus

Rating: $$ 1/2

Review: Ever since Ben Marcus' darkly hilarious and ultimately touching story about a man who becomes a walking science experiment for a venture capital startup, "The Grow Light Blues," from the 6/22/15 issue of The New Yorker (TGCB, 9/2/15), this author's name has been burned onto my brain as one to watch for. You can probably already guess, also by my 2.5 dollar sign rating, that his latest NYer offering, "Cold Little Bird," met with my approval, so...

"Cold Little Bird" tells the story of Martin, a young married father of two, and how he reacts when faced with what sounds like a nightmare scenario for a parent: His oldest son, aged 10, suddenly becomes unresponsive to him and his wife, won't allow them to touch him for so much as a goodnight kiss or hug, and engages only in conversation when they get in his face and yell at him.

Add to this the fact that Martin and Rachel's marriage, and indeed their relationship whatever it was before they had children, has become wholly devoted to the work and tedium of parenting. They've grown so distant and out of touch with each other -- even while maintaining a functional household and marriage -- that the slightest of errors in communication sends them into a fight. The errors seem to be committed mostly by Martin, and he spends most of his time apologizing and explaining himself, as he is doing in this scene which leads to the most powerful passage of this story; a passage that describes the loneliness and alienation Martin feels as his wife and oldest child seem to slip away from him:

"You had these creatures in your house. You fed them. You cleaned them. And there was the person you'd made them with. She was beautiful, probably. She was smart, probably. It was impossible to know anymore. He looked at her through an unclean filter, for sure. He could indulge a great anger toward her that would suddenly vanish if she touched his hand. What was wrong? He'd done something or he hadn't done something. Figure it the fuck out, Martin thought. Root out the resentment. Apologize so hard it leaks from her body. Then drink the liquid. Or use it in soup. Whatever."

To me this is Ben Marcus at his best: probing deeply into the black depths of a soul in captivity while also staying lighthearted. His characterization of Martin here is that of a tenacious man determined to do the right thing for his marriage and family even he has to abandon all sense of himself in the process, and go where he's never gone before. That is, probably, what Love really is.

I'll leave the nuts and bolts of the plot to those who want to take the time to read this story -- and you absolutely should. I think what Marcus accomplishes here is to make a sort of fable, an allegory perhaps, to portray what is actually pretty common phenomenon in the whole sphere of being in a family: a feeling of alienation from those to whom we should feel the closest.

This story just misses out on the full three $$$ rating because Marcus's Martin and Rachel are a bit too transparently drawn as "characters" meant to illustrate a point. This is what I mean, partly, by fable or allegory above. Though I read this story with rapt amusement, there were times when I felt Marcus's hand pushing Martin a little too much toward the edge, and too fast. Or maybe it's that Martin seems like the only character in this story who's really "alive"? Maybe that's the point? I don't know but something felt ever so slightly off.

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