Ben Marcus: “Rollingwood”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Ben Marcus’s “Rollingwood” was first published in The New Yorker‘s March 21, 2011, issue.

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I’m afraid it has been one of those weeks, and I haven’t even glanced at this story yet.  Nor have I been able to respond to comments.  No worries: I will get caught up.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one.

12 thoughts on “Ben Marcus: “Rollingwood””

  1. Betsy says:

    A baby’s asthma is the central issue and central metaphor in “Rollingwood”, and it works quite well to create a horror that impels the reader forward. At the same time, there is a stultifying passivity in the baby’s father that intensifies the horror. The flat language further intensifies our sense that it’s time to pull the emergency cord. But an elementary school tower has “stopped at three-fifteen a long time ago”, and the father thinks in repeated variation, “This is how it has to be.” The reader is by turns mystified and enraged, a situation for us that I think the writer, Ben Marcus, enjoys.

    “Rollingwood” opens with an alarming scene: a father wakes up to “the distant siren” of a toddler crying. His response is to want to “smother the sound” by putting a pillow over his head. The father drags himself into the little boy’s bedroom, to find him “wedged under the machine”. The boy has no name, but he does have some kind of medical machine about which the father thinks: “It’s a terrible design.” The machine “barely fits in the crib”, but there’s just enough room for the baby to crawl underneath a part of it – like a cave, like a den where a wild animal can be safe. Later in the story we learn that the toddler has asthma: “He is pale and certainly too little for his age, and he sits listlessly on the rug after his nap.”

    The story is extremely bleak – it presents a young father who seems to have no capacity for action and who also has no capacity for active reflection about what is happening to him and his child. They seem to be caught in a moment of crisis, although the father appears unaware of its significance. There is a convergence of catastrophes: the father cannot communicate with his ex-wife, who dumps the boy on him “for a few days”, the child-care center at work is inexplicably closed, the workplace itself is deadly. The father has to skip work, then has to hire a sitter he does not know, and he has parents who view the wreckage of the scene without recognition or compassion. But when his ex-wife suddenly calls, “It’s as if the whole crisis were over.” The final four paragraphs display the father’s pathology as he retreats into a fantasy involving giving the boy a toy train.

    The father thinks repeatedly: “He has no real choice.” The reader’s dilemma is to assess the validity of that claim. The story has the delicious feel of the future – and the luxury therefore of proposing terrible outcomes for us to contemplate, without our being sure that this is actually the present.

    Despite the terrifying situation, I liked the story. It felt like a kind of futuristic fable which included a little spreadsheet of the dehumanizing nature of modern life. The flat narration detailed the baby’s terrible life, leaving it to the reader to decipher the course of the terror or its relief. I’ll admit that I enjoyed the tale’s Cassandra nature: as if the writer were saying – “Now you cannot claim you have not been warned. Look and see if you see yourself here. Or what you may become.”

    The young man has become a piece of “rolling wood” himself – a drifting blockhead with no sense and no fight. What is presented to the reader is a tableau — in which of these scenes do you recognize yourself? I will admit that I found the grandparents alarming – dead to the wreckage in which they find their son and grandson. I liked the story. I liked the mystery and horror, and I thought there was quite a bit to think about.

  2. Tim says:

    Great response, Betsy. I found the passivity of the father, Mather, to be stifling as well. It reminded me, in terms of passive characters, of Empire Falls by Richard Russo, and the main character’s inability to do anything proactive.

    Mather is entirely reactive and seemingly unaware. Horror is a good choice of words. The reader, constrained by what is on the page, watches as events unfold and Mather stumbles through them. It’s worse for the reader, because we are more aware than Mather of what is happening.

    The story didn’t appeal to me as much, mainly because I wanted more to happen. I didn’t want to be trapped there alongside Mather. One thing I found interesting was how the story is described with keywords. You can check that out here, but it doesn’t add much to the review.

  3. Betsy says:

    Thanks, Tim, for the heads-up about the New Yorker “meta-tags”. I checked out the link. I didn’t know about these.

    For me, the key word is “abandonment”, every which way from Sunday. Of course, Marcus never mentions it. After posting that long reaction to the story I realized that I never said said straight out that to me the baby is the main character, and his perilous situation seems akin to the French boy who was left to grow up in the wild.

    Truly, I would love to read a story that awakened me to the rare finesse and trouble a real parent takes to “take care” of their child – against all odds… But I also love a scary tale, and to me, this is a very scary tale. (Think H James and his various abandoned children). And maybe we pay more attention to the artfully told scary tale. More Anderson than Grimm, given that there’s no happy ending. Funny, though, that this makes another in a string of stories about questionable fathers and sons in peril (Wallace & Gaitskill, to name two.)

  4. Tim says:

    Another thought to go with the baby’s asthma is that Mather also can’t breath. He’s suffering from a slow suffocation.

  5. Jon says:

    Oh I wanted to just throttle Mather. I know my reactions to stories about parents and parenting is usually strong, but really!! He is just such a nincompoop! That machine is not so bad – it’s a cold mist vaporizer, fairly standard for infants with breathing problems, we had one for my daughter when she was an infant. How could a thing like that flumox him? Anyway, you do NOT keep it in the crib. You do do NOT keep any hard plastic object in a crib with an infant, much less a device with an electric line and a water reservoir. And how could he not take that poor child to the doctor when the skin starts to dangerously dry and the other symptoms get worse? I half expected the child to be dead by the end of the story. OK, the ex is an irresponsible mess with the development of a cartoon character, but so what? The kid is with him, the ex ought to be largely irrelevant. He could have been happy to see her dissapear but he’s frantic for her to come back, the only thing he has any affirmative impulse about the whole story through. His nincompoopness appears to have been handed down from his own walking-dead parents. I saw in this story as in the murderer-in-training story a couple of weeks ago a bleak situation going from quite bad to inevitably far worse. I also wondered whether his name, “Mather” – a father in the role of a mother – was a dig at paternal parenting? Probably not but the name seemed so intentional it must signify something. Not sure what.

    Last year there was Claire Keegan’s “Foster” which was a story about terrific parenting by a couple who were not the child’s biological parents. Since then it’s been a horror show.

    New Yorker has been doing a great job showing us characters who ought just to be generally slapped for terminal and/or criminal stupidity. Why this theme in selections? What are they hoping to convey? (I can’t buy the theory that stroy selection does not hope to convey something – otherwise they could just pick randomly among technically proficient pieces, and taht seems like about the lowest bar possible. Where there’s a consistent theme, there’s a reason.)

  6. Betsy says:

    Jon, I missed that Mather/Mother connection. Nice. The name suggests that there’s a key bit of wiring missing. Also, there’s the Cotton Mather echo: is Marcus reminding us how far we’ve slid?

    Want to take a look again at the Keegan story. Anyway, I get your outrage at Mather, but wasn’t that where Marcus wanted to take us? What I actually mean is – did you like the story?

  7. Trevor says:

    Okay, I skipped this story and went ahead with reading the new (well, old) Murakami. I’ll get to it soon!

  8. Jon says:

    Betsy – yes, I thought the story was very good. Don’t know if I liked it exactly, but I wasn’t sorry to have read it like the Gaitskill piece from a few weeks ago. I thought alot of the story was also about the mother’s mind set though she’s absent from the story as she’s absent from the child, obvious parallel there. The end was hugely significant though though I’m not sure what it meant – the kid is as relieved as he can be, takes refuge and comfort burrowing into in his mother’s arms. The story could easily be read as an endorsement of the necessity above all else of a mother’s primary role in parenting, but she was such an unmitigated jerk that’s kind of hard to take too. Overall very puzzling, which is a big plus in a story, but I do like to figure out at least a viable answer to puzzles rather than just have to say “beats me, I have no idea what this is about.” Here there were a lot of viable answers, including the “a mother’s love – right or wrong” theme. My biggest impression was – what a bunch of self defeating chumps! Dad’s got the gumption of a big pile of mud; mom’s self absorbed and way too impressed with herself; the grandparents appear to be dumb as a bucket of rocks.

  9. Aaron says:

    I think part of my issue with this story is that everything about it reminded me of that excerpt from the upcoming David Foster Wallace novel, I think it was “The Compliance Branch” or something like that. The observations, in other words, are solid, but I don’t think Marcus is as desperate to communicate (or fight through to) something more than just the soul-crushing reality of Mather’s situation.

    I admire the way the clarity slowly creeps up you from initially confusing descriptions (the alien-like machine, the siren-like wailing), and I appreciate the father/son one-way connection, with the father somewhat living through his son (“Fatherhood has somehow become about helping the boy not love his mother too painfully”) from their look out on his own childhood to his attempt to rebuild his future childhood (the toy-train ending). But it left me cold; the urge to go back and try to understand or relate to this world just wasn’t there, and that’s more on me than Marcus, because I believe (unlike this week’s Murakami) that the substance *is* there.

  10. Steve Stevens says:

    I understood immediately what Marcus was communicating here, not because I am anything like a sophisticated connoisseur of modern-day literature, but because I am a parent of two young children who strongly identifies with the experiences in the story. The whole thing is obviously exaggerated for effect–nobody goes through what the protagonist goes through in such a short period of time. Marcus seems to be using gimmicks to help the exaggeration. However, I’m sure that most parents of infants in 2011 America can relate to what he goes through, especially those of us who lacked anything like a support network.

    One point that seems to have been almost universally missed–Mather’s passivity is a consequence of his sleep deprivation and general stress level. His mind and psyche seems to be shutting down in response to all the demands and rejection, which does happen.

  11. Ken says:

    I’ll agree with the last post, by Steve, but is that enough “reward” for the torment and cruelty this story puts us and its hapless characters through? I’d say this sort of mean-spiritedness is excusable in pure horror stories (which one reads expecting genre conventions and the plesures of genre)or if some really trenchant social comment is made. But to simply reiterate tired ideas about the anomic, bland white-collared Office Space/Dilbert world of modern exurbia is not enough “comment.” Nor does a vague dystopian tone provide enough sustenace for the tormented reader. I will thank the readers above for making me more aware of Mather’s culpability-I mostly sympathized with him since he seemed persecuted-but still even if he’s as culpable, what’s the point of this punishing exercise in meanness? On the other hand, I’ll admit this riveted me with fascination as I watched things get worse and nastier.

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