August 8, 2011: “What Have You Done?” by Ben Marcus
This story is a little sneaky. Paul is the point of view character/protagonist, and this is his voice, although the story is told in third person. He knows something that he’s not telling us, the readers, because he’s also not telling the other people in the story—his parents and his sister and brother-in-law. On the other hand, his concealing his secret (I guess I shouldn’t reveal it either?) is the point.
Paul has returned to his hometown of Cleveland, where he hasn’t been for some time. But there’s a family reunion, and so here he is. He’s met at the airport—at this point, the reader wonders if there’s some family tragedy that has occurred that brings him home—by his father, his sister, and the brother-in-law. Everyone except his mother. Paul thinks everyone is uncomfortable with him. (They are. And there’s a reason for that, too.)
But Paul is doing okay for himself, although when he tries to explain this to the family no one believes him. Which, naturally, frustrates him. His tendency to become nasty emerges. But at the family reunion, he mostly behaves himself, and even has a good time, although being back in Cleveland brings out the worst in him. Until he realizes this and he has to leave early and go home. To his home, not his parents home. Which is when the climactic scene with the mother happens.
I enjoyed the story a lot, because the character of Paul is so flawed and neurotic. With such characters, everything they do is a surprise, and Paul is no exception. And what’s it all about? Coming home, for one thing. Paul’s perceptions of what Cleveland is are colored by the presence of his family, in which he no longer fits. It’s also about building—Paul’s father was a contractor, Paul a woodworker who notices architecture—and about creating the future. But it’s also a great portrait of Paul, who is fat, seems sexually immature, and has some anger management issues.
Check out the interview with Ben Marcus, too, that sheds additional light on the story.