Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review #151: "The Bog Girl" by Karen Russell

From the June 20 issue...

My loyal readers (if there are still any, which I doubt) will know I'm usually not a fan of Magical Realism, which, as you may also know, is Karen Russell's stock in trade. That said, there's nothing I love more than having my antipathy for magical realism shattered by an awesome story like "The Bog Girl."

Briefly, an Irish teenager discovers the body of a young woman who as been buried in a bog for over 2,000 years and begins to date her. What more do you need, right? If I'd read that one-line description somewhere else, and wasn't on a mission to review every New Yorker short story, I doubt I'd have read "The Bog Girl." But maybe I should start doing a George Costanza and do the opposite of everything I think I should do.

Where Russell succeeds here is in two main areas: 1.) Making us really love Cillian, the teenager who falls in love with the bog girl, and 2.) pulling the unbelievable trick making the characters…

Holiday Q&A, Volume 1

These questions come to us from Grace. Thanks for sending your questions!! Answers below:
What is the most thrilling mystery you have read and/or watched?
The Eiger Sanction (book and film) by Trevanian is what's coming to mind. International espionage. Mountain-climbing assassins. Evil albino masterminds. Sex. Not a bad combination. Warning, this is completely a "guy" movie, and the film (feat. Clint Eastwood) is priceless 70s action movie cheese. But in case that's your thing...
What's the deal with Narcos?
Narcos is a Netflix show about the rise and fall (but mostly the fall) of Columbian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. Thus far there are two seasons of 10 episodes each. RIYL: The film Blow, starring Johnny Depp; the book Zombie City, by Thomas Katz; the movie Goodfellas; true crime; anything involving the drug trade. My brief review: Season 1 started out a bit slow and I know a bunch of people who never made it past the first few episodes. Some of the acting is a…

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…