Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The New Yorker: "Rollingwood" by Ben Marcus


Ben Marcus has a new novel coming out next year, The Flame Alphabet, but from what I’ve read about that book, this story doesn’t seem to be an excerpt. Which is good. Because I liked it a lot, in a horrified, angry sort of way. Sorry it’s not available online to non-subscribers. It’s a really good read.

The point of view character is Mather. (Surely it’s not accidental that ‘Mather’ is a combination of Mother and Father, given how the story unfolds.) He shares custody of Alan, an asthmatic 18-month-old kid, with the boy’s mother, Maureen. The reader doesn’t even meet Maureen until well into the story, when Mather has gone to her apartment for the “handoff” of Alan. Single-parenthood with a kid like Alan seems especially tough. He needs a special humidifier. Alan doesn’t have a car so he has to take Alan in his carpool to his workplace where Alan spends the day in the nursery. Except when the carpool doesn’t show up and Mather has to take Alan on the bus. Except when the nursery is inexplicably closed and Mather has to take a personal day off in order to take care of his son.

When we first meet the mother, she asks Mather to keep Alan for a while because she and her boyfriend are going off on a trip. Off they go, and Mather doesn’t complain, because he doesn’t want to be the kind of guy who complains. But Maureen doesn’t come back, and doesn’t call, and the nursery is closed, and Mather doesn’t know what to do. Meanwhile, he’s having problems at work—some temps are using his cubicle, and his boss speaks in riddles. (The writing is clearly on the wall, but Mather doesn’t see it.) During a crucial conversation with the boss, the baby sitter calls but Mather doesn’t understand what she’s saying, so he leaves work, takes the bus home, and finds that Maureen and her boyfriend are taking Alan away, and Maureen is furious at Mather for leaving Alan alone “with a stranger.”

It’s all so unfair, and the reader expects Mather to explode in rage. (And he does, briefly, at one of Maureen’s friends, whom he’s called to find out where the hell she is.) But he just takes it.

The story, told in the present tense, is fast-paced, and although it’s long—especially compared to last week’s story—it moves quickly. The title is surely significant. Mather gazes longingly at the neighborhood where he grew up, Rollingwood, and compares it to the treeless area where he now lives. In Rollingwood, it is always 3:15 because the school's clocktower broke years ago, so school is always out. A kid's idea of a perfect place to live. But that's not where he lives now, it's not where Alan will grow up, and he realizes that, in fact, he'll have little say over where Alan goes to school. It's all terribly depressing. But Mather has no choice but to go on this way, and so he goes home an prepares for Alan's next visit.

March 21, 2001: “Rollingwood” by Ben Marcus

7 comments:

Bill said...

Cliff,

Curious to me that you enjoyed the story so much. If it happened to a friend of mine, I'd be interested, perhaps, and feel bad for him, perhaps. That doesn't make my friend's story literature. I'd welcome you to read my take at The Darkwood Review. In summary, I think the story is very uniform in tone. I don't mind stories that are manipulative (when aren't they?), but this one tugs at the heartstrings with total transparency. The reader can't engage with any conflict in the story because the whole story is conflict--the world against Mather. It's pretty clear from the first few paragraphs what life has in store for him...the remaining pages only serve to confirm it.

Marc Gerstein said...

Bill,

I have to disagree with you. I'm with Cliff in seeing this as a great read.

As a profile of a loser, it could easily have degenerated into cliche. I believe that would have happened had it been confined to Mather's interaction with his ex and the people around her. But by adding the corporate dimension, Marcus took it to a whole new level.

It's a shame that the business-corporate world is so badly neglected by fiction writers in general and short-story writers in particular. This world is ubiquitous in our society, so if one isn't writing about it, one is missing quite a lot. (I listen to a lot of pulp audio legal thrillers out of desperation to get some sort of real world settings.)

Anyway, I think it was the confrontation with the Temps that really drove this thing home for me. That, followed by Mather's attempts to get satisfaction by going to his boss, is where I started to perceive this story less with my head and more with my gut. The unexpected unexplained closing of the company nursery was added spice. Having spent a good deal of time in the corporate-cubicle world, that stuff made me boil in a way that could never have been accomplished by the usual literary devices.

I'm still on edge about the ending. Is Mather going to go on as he is at that point in the story? Is he going to go back to the office with an automatic weapon? Is he going to jump in front of a bus? Is he going to stalk his ex? One way or another, it does look a bit like Mather is on the sort of inevitable downward spiral we've seen from, the likes of Dreisser: Hurstwood in Sister Carrie, or Griffiths in American Tragedy. With the Dreisser characters, we can at least point to something they did to themselves to start the boulder running downhill. I can't really do that in "Rollingwood," but this does get me to wondering what a prequel might look like, what Mather might have done to turn his life in this direction.

Marc

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a haunting story, depressing of course, repetitive, yes. The line that spoke to me was when the mother was saying I love you etc and promising the child she'd take him to the boat ride, and Mather knew it wouldn't happen and felt that he had to protect the boy from that kind of love.

Bill said...

Wow, I continue to be amazed at the support for this story. I, too, liked the work angle and the unexplained closing of the nursery, but the temps and the boss, especially, felt wooden and predictable. The boss wasn't nuanced at all, he was what central casting sends over when the director wants 'heartless' and 'cold'. Because this is a work of realism it's fair, and necessary, to ask, "Is the character of the boss believable?" For me--and I've worked in plenty of cube hell holes--the answer is no. Everyone's actions in the story were driven not by character but by the story's conceit, evident int he grammatical tick. Nobody COULD have acted otherwise--it's impossible, because it would have Marcus's artifice. Basically, no one has free will in this story. Marcus gives them none. For me, that's not good fiction.

Anonymous said...

I think this story is brilliant depiction of parenthood and brilliant to be written from a father's view and not a mother's, otherwise it would just be viewed as a woman's failure to be maturnal. Parenting is unbelieveably hard and can be so unrewarding as to be stupifying. But then, as in the end here, when you do get a tiny break, you tend to just suck in your breath and try to figure out how to do it better next time. Luckily, I don't view this story as realism, as one poster stated. It is dreamlike, or even nightmarish. But the conflict between the needs of the child and the demands of the job are real.

Anonymous said...

Bill,

What's up with this free will and conceit business? Of course these characters don't have free will, because, well, they are characters, characters whose sole purpose is to drive home the message/theme/worldview set up by the conceit.

This argument always boggles my mind, how readers don't "feel" that characters are real. Fiction is artifice, and through that artifice, an author can hit, not facts, but truths. This story, I think, is concerned with truths, which is why it works.

Characters need to be "real" in reality of the story, not the rules of reality. These are characters, only real in the way that characters can be real. This, after all, is fiction.

Marc Gerstein said...

Hi again Bill,

With regard to the boss and your characterization of him as "what central casting sends over when the director wants 'heartless' and 'cold,'" I buy that. But that's not all. It's also what HR demands when the topic of layoff looks to be on the table. So i was, actually, able to accept the boss as legit in the context of fiction.

As to the determinism, I'm not sure Marcus resolved the issue as much as he opened a debate on it. We all, presumably, like to think of ourselves as being fully empowered, but are we as empowered as we assume? Speaking for myself, I'm with a three-person entrepreneurial company now, but when I reflect back on my days in the big corporate cubicle world, I've come to see that I had a lot less control over my situation than I assumed at the time. As to parenting, many of us cherish it based on the rewards, but Mather's experience does remind us how incredibly dis-empowering it can be.