- Groping through the Fog
288 Pages; Cloth, $26.95
Folks don't always know what they're doing, why they're doing it, what they're supposed to be doing instead, and, moreover, how they're supposed to feel about any of that. Ben Marcus's collection Notes from the Fog seems to offer readers a variety of these existential crises—the author spreading out the brutal choices like a Vegas dealer fanning out cards—and while no one will really find clear answers to those questions or even much comfort in reading the stories, the collection's narrators and speakers do function as grinning Pied Pipers who will dance everyone happily to hell.
Many of these stories aren't set up along the traditional story arc, with a conflict, crisis, resolution pattern. For most of the pieces, the point seems to be that there can be no resolution; the problems experienced by the characters cannot be solved or dissolved, either. Marcus rejects that simplicity, choosing instead to offer hopeless situations that exist in a sort of futuristic anti-Eden controlled by corporations (mostly pharma and tech industries) where meaningful human connection is all but extinct. One can't ignore, though, that despite the stories' absurd premises, the emotions of the protagonists feel familiar, like one of those tiny surgical cameras is poking into the ugliest parts of oneself and showing what it finds on a large-screen television. With equal parts repulsion, shame, curiosity, and fascination, no one can look away.
Ida Grieve is a young professional whose industry is dying in "Precious Precious." She finds no personal satisfaction in her work, a vague role at a company called Thompson that "was a think tank that had turned into a make tank, which meant it was essentially like any other company," and her father is dying. Romance and friendship seem out of the question, and even sex offers little validation for being alive. It is Ida's depressing fantasy that "One day, supposedly, a Kind Friend could give them what they needed, and clean up after, and possibly even flush the shame from their systems as well." Her carnal reality, though, is that "for the time being they still had to endure the company of other fleshy need machines, human spouters and little bags of weepery." She starts taking a mysterious drug called Rally, "[n]ot for moods, she was told, but possibly for the lack of them." This ennui is ever-present not only here but throughout the entire story, and the fact that no one can keep their Rally pills down may say that all those patients don't want to feel things, anyway.
Ida is not the only character for whom regular-old human-to-human sex is unfulfilling, monotonous, and not worth the sweaty bother. Really, a quest for new and satisfying (or at least efficient) sexual experiences is one of the collection's main threads. The speaker in "The Boys," who is staying with her brother-in-law and young nephews after the death of her sister, decides she has been wasting time by masturbating alone and then, late at night, performing almost anonymous sexual favors for her grieving brother-in-law. She reduces sex to a math equation: "When I thought about how I was spending my time, I realized that I was masturbating two people. Myself and Drew. For the sheer sake of efficiency, just following the logic, I could reduce this workload by 100 percent, saving time and effort, without forfeiting our mutual outcomes, simply by having intercourse with Drew." There is no question of ethics or boundaries for the married speaker—those things are not quantifiable, so don't matter. For another protagonist, George (in "George and Elizabeth"), sex has been almost completely replaced by something more intimate: simply being watched. "[I]t's a new sort of thing," George tells his therapist. "[A man on the internet] provides eye contact. People pay a lot. He'll just watch you, on video.... People pay him to watch while they have sex, of...