Discussed in this essay:
Notes from the Fog by Ben Marcus. Knopf. 288 pages. $26.95.
A Girl’s Guide to Missiles: Growing up in America’s Secret Desert by Karen Piper. 336 pages. Viking. $27.
Sight by Jessie Greengrass.Hogarth. 208 pages. $21.
“How hard could it be,” a designer muses of one of her firm’s pet R&D projects, “to finally reach into people’s faces and claw away at what they were thinking.” If anyone can cure you of the rankly sentimental notion that all human creatures yearn to be understood, it may be a writer of fiction. Notes from the Fog (Knopf, $26.95), Ben Marcus’s new story collection, shows a persistent awareness of the violence involved in interpretation—of the difficulty of fully understanding something without in the process destroying it. As crowds of people move around “pursuing tasks they are sure they thought of themselves,” the narrator of “Critique” notes that “very few of these civilians seem aware of their true purpose. Dissection revealed otherwise, of course. Dissection revealed a clear program carried out at what can only be called the cellular level.” This alarmingly pragmatictake on the mind-body problem recurs throughout the book, as parents and bosses and doctors and private investigators and industrial researchers fantasize or strategize effective ways to excavate information, data, meaning, thoughts, and feelings from the frail, pesky human form. “Unless you can rip apart someone’s body and finally know their secrets,” thinks the subject of a medical experiment, “then they are a stranger.”
Notes from the Fog adopts a grimly low-tech vision of the future that mostly ignores machines and systems to work directly on bodies. After luring the casual reader in with “Cold Little Bird,” an admirably restrained domestic drama, the collection soon shifts into a gently apocalyptic picture of mass surveillance, medical experimentation, and ecological collapse, taking its sardonic view of family life—self-deluding cruelty and embarrassing neediness and all—along for the ride. During an evacuation from their home on an artificial island, a wife ponders the husband pouting beside her in the driver’s seat: “I never knew that I would be called on so relentlessly to agree with someone.” Another wife, Helen, whose sexless marriage seems to threaten a middle age that’s “just a rotten footbridge you had to navigate, with a creepy old troll beating off underneath it,” shares with her husband an architectural practice with a booming line in memorials for the large-scale terrorist attacks that have become a routine part of American life. Their designs are sponsored by pharmaceutical giants, which, through spouts installed in the monuments, spray clouds of mood-altering drugs to put visitors in an appropriately reflective state of mind. Helen increasingly finds that every commission strikes her as “a future headstone, a kind of sarcophagus that would briefly house living, glistening people before they were lowered into the earth or scattered out over the lake in a burst of powder.” In a third story, a parent administered an experimental substance is left wondering, at the school gates, how to know, “looking at these children, some of them so truly lifelike, which ones were yours.”
As is so often the case, the wilder and more Swiftian the plots get, the more intimately the stories seem to evoke a lived reality. “Critique,” among the shortest of the stories, and the one least clothed in narrative, has no characters at all. Its object of analysis is an ephemeral art installation in the form of a hospital, although the story soon begins to swipe gleefully at its own author, its readers, and the rest of the known world. People “are done badly, all the time, and then soon that is the way people are always done—with bodies and eyes, with feelings, so finally conventional, so deeply unimaginative.” As in the story about Helen, an image appears in “Critique” of a series of graveyards spreading so far as to link together and leave nothing else to walk on. “Certainly there is a critique, in this piece, of waking up, of bothering to live.” And it’s not easy
to escape the feeling that this is a weakness of the project, no matter how profoundly ambitious it is to create a world, build things in it, and then allow life to occur. It is a clear weakness to create an erratic, confusing experience out of time, to give each creature an apparently unique perception of time, and then to make time itself inconsistent, poorly designed, and finally simply too hard to believe. An unfortunate weakness in an otherwise impressive project.