Thursday, March 24, 2011

Short-a-Day: Ben Marcus's "Rollingwood"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Mar. 21, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 51.

It must suck to be the one guy in the room who actually cares. The story opens with  "It's still dark when the weeping erupts, so Mather knows it's early," so right from the start, we can see how calm and rational our protagonist is. He'll need such cool, for the story consists of the world slowly but consistently screwing him with dispassion and incompetence: his ex-wife saddles him with their fussy, asthmatic one-and-a-half-year-old so that she can start a new life with her boyfriend (pretending that she'll just be gone for a few days); the nursery at work inexplicably closes; instead of telling Mather's boss that he's taken a personal day, she reports that he has quit his job; his car pool just stops picking him up; he always misses the bus by a minute; it's winter. We get things like this: "Mather demonstrates the ventilator to the sitter, but it clear that she has already decided that it is too complicated for her to operate."

If you haven't figured it out yet, this is, as Single Soliloquy notes, a classic example of the passive narrator, and if memory serves, very familiar ground for Marcus, whose novel Notable American Women dealt with mute people and, at best, had haunting echoes of David Foster Wallace's writing. This particular story, however, which starts out mysterious but quickly becomes sufferingly pedantic, more resembles a Murakami short, in that despite being well-written, it doesn't seem to really do much more than waffle on the vagaries of life:

Mather points out old landmarks to the boy--the old Rotterman Dam and the shipping depot built of natural black bricks--but the boy doesn't look. he hangs on Mather's outstretched arm and tries to swing from it. Mather stands up and swings him around the boy laughs, but the laugh turns into a whimper and Mather isn't sure if the boy is frightened or happy.

However, there's at least room in Marcus's story for the reader to do some work and draw some larger conclusions, should you want to take that route. Much hinges on the line "Fatherhood has somehow become about helping the boy not love his mother too painfully," for in that, we can see how both Mather and son Alan ("a name not for a baby but for a grown man") have crushing similarities. Moreover, when we briefly meet Mather's mother (the similarity of those words is not an accident), we get an opportunity for another worldview, in which all these soul-crushing slights against Mather are imaginary: "'You worry too much,' she says." Beyond that, too, there are all the ways in which language is misinterpreted, not just textually, but physically, if you look at architecture as a solid structure of words (this is some literary theory sign/signifier stuff, though).

Personally, I don't feel motivated to explore the incidents or characters of "Rollingwood," and in some sense, that means Marcus has succeeded, for he's made me as passive, forgiving, and hopeful as Mather.

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