Ben Marcus: “What Have You Done?”

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 “What Have You Done?” was originally published in the August 8, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

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Ben Marcus is back to remind me I have yet to read “Rollingwood,” which was published in the March 18, 2011 issue.  I’ve already started this one and will take this opportunity to catch up on the past story too.  In the meantime, please feel free to comment below.  I’ll post my thoughts on the original posts for each story.

6 thoughts on “Ben Marcus: “What Have You Done?””

  1. Betsy says:

    In the Ben Marcus story, “What Have You Done?”, 40 year old Paul Berger visits his mother and father for the first time in years, perhaps decades, and during the visit, it becomes clear that he has not had any other contact with them. (This is a superior story of peculiar power, and its effects depend upon a slow reveal, so if you haven’t read the story yet, I’d recommend you read the story, not this!)

    Paul’s mother and father don’t even know that he is married, nor do they know he has a child, or that he is happy. The story hinges partly on what could have caused such a rift, and partly on whether or not Paul’s new life will survive the damage. The “What Have You Done?” of the title is ambiguous: there is capacious room in this story for the person to have done something to be Paul, his mother, or his father. We just don’t know. That the question pins blame is clear, and that Paul is the one who gets the blame is clear, but what isn’t clear is whether he deserves the blame.

    While sitting at the reunion dinner with people who did know what really happened, Paul thinks, “These people would have to die for Paul to be free. Which was bullshit, he knew. It was Paul who would have to die.”

    A really dense and convoluted thought occurs simultaneously and shows how deeply stuck Paul is about what it was that somebody did, once upon a time, back when he was living at home. Paul “looked at the other relatives around the table, who carried with them a narrative of Paul that he could never, no matter what, revise. A narrative that favored the outcome, a father with unexplained bruises…” Paul has so much difficulty thinking about this time in his life that he uses a kind of blurred shorthand to maneuver around in the fearful details. What Paul appears to be thinking is that all the realatives know is that the father has “unexplained bruises” that Paul caused. In other words, Paul was so violent he attacked his father. Or this is the narrative his relatives believe.

    Paul finishes the thought with this idea: that there might actually be “a really elaborate subtext and context and supporting architecture that fucking deeply informs single events –accidents–that somehow get out of control.” This complicated thought suggests two things: that, yes, in fact, there were some others factors in the “events”, that perhaps something unfinished in the family structure led to violence in the family; but that yes, Paul’s thought process is obfuscating some basic fear regarding how much to blame Paul himself is. The reader, being older than the teenager Paul once was, wants to grab him. The reader wants to hold him. The reader wants to yell into his ear in the softest way possible – you are only a child! Yes, you were out of control! But who else was also out of control?

    One wonders if it was the mother who had cried out to her husband, “What have you done?” Or was she crying out to her son? Which? or both? Or did the whole mess start with the father saying “What have you done?” to the mother? Not clear to this reader.

    What is clear is that fear is a character in this story.

    When the mother welcomes Paul back, she finds herself left alone in the living room with him. Paul registers what he names as “panic of someone trapped in a cage with an animal.” The reader accepts that she is afraid of him. The reader also accepts that Paul feels her fear exponentially. “Paul felt bad for her.”

    This, after having felt such joy at her warm welcome that “he wanted to pick her up and run out in the street.”

    If fear is a character, then so are rage and sadness.

    Marcus is dealing with volcanic emotions, and one of his gifts is that he manages to keep them just that: volcanic. There is nothing pretty about any of the emotions in this story. The sadness is terrifying. The rage is terrifying. The fear is terrifying. Marcus manages to portray the adult Paul in the grip of emotions that may have been forged, in fact, when he was two – long before they ever surfaced in the form they took in his adolescence. Marcus comments in his Bookbench interview with Deborah Treisman that he picked Cleveland as his setting in order to be able to avoid sentimentality. He doesn’t say so in that interview, but I think his purpose is to make you feel the force of primitive emotions with primitive force – much the way we feel them in our homes.

    We feel Paul to be in the grip of the primitive emotions of a two year old, and we wonder at the question – “What have you done?” Did the mother, in fact, betray Paul? Is he asking her what it was she was doing? Did she abandon Paul to his father? Would this have led to the terrible argument that Paul and his mother have later, in the middle of the night?

    Where is Paul in his recovery process? Not very far. Is he up to “making amends”? Is he capable of forgiveness? These seem like pipedreams. Paul does drink only seltzer. Paul does love his wife and child. But in the middle of the night, in his parents’ home in Cleveland, talking to his mother about his real wife and his real child, his mother enrages him. He yells. He knocks over the table. His mother “threw up her arms as if he were about to strike her.”

    “But why would he hit his own mother?” he asks himself in perplexity.

    Making amends; forgiveness: these are pipedreams in Paul’s world. Distance appears to be the only salve. Except that it doesn’t prevent the mind from years of pursuit of the “revision of shit that had really fucking happened…”

    One of the tip-offs that part of Paul’s submerged rage is at his mother is his inability to register that his mother is sick.

    She doesn’t appear at the airport because she is resting, which puzzles Paul, and she welcomes him home looking “so small inside her robe”, as if that also puzzles him. Later, she is seen in the middle of the night, sitting at the kitchen table and “shuffling an amber colony of pill bottles.” One might think that the problem could be addictions, except that his sister Alicia has commented that their mother “is really amazing”. Alicia also says that “she’s such a fighter.”

    Paul’s reaction to this is to be “baffled”. “Who had she fought?” he thought to himself. The reader interprets the code language, mom as “fighter”, to be significant, that perhaps she has cancer, which would explain the resting, the robe, and her small size. Paul, however, can go no further. The reader also notices later, another meaning to Paul’s question – “Who had she fought?” No one? Should she have? Had she ever stood up to her husband? Should she ever have stood up to her husband on Paul’s behalf? On the two year old’s behalf? On the twelve year old’s behalf?

    Early in the story, Paul has remarked upon the sight of some “endlessly delayed construction projects”. Noting his obtuse reaction to his mother’s condition, and noting the idea of endlessly delayed construction projects, and noting as well other difficulties in the family, it appears that a central concern of the story is Paul himself as a kind of endlessly delayed construction project. We all put off accepting that one of our parents is ill, but Paul’s resistance is phenomenal, almost primitive.

    When Paul noticed the incomplete constuction projects, he also noticed “rebar poking through [the sand] like the breathing tubes of men buried alive.”

    One wishes the adult Paul free of all this, but Marcus allows us little sentimental hope – except for this: Paul knows that his wife Andrea and his son Jack are “wonderful” and that he is “lucky.”

    Marcus also gives us this: Paul has surpassed his dad as a carpenter – he is now a woodworker. Perhaps he can also surpass his dad as a father.

    Several months ago, another story by Marcus “Rollingwood” concerned a hopeless young man who seemed to be separated from his parents, who also seemed to be buried alive, so much so that his passivity appeared to be threatening his child’s life. “Rollingwood” provided no back story regarding the young man’s childhood or adolescence, and in so doing made him a really maddening figure. Reading this story, however, I understand more of “Rollingwood. Taken together, these two stories make me want to read more of Ben Marcus.

  2. Betsy says:

    Okay, my apologies. I have rethought this story. I didn’t allow myself enough time to think it through.

    One pivot in this story is Paul’s sense that his history is cast in stone, although he wants desperately to be able to revise the meaning that the past has. Nevertheless, he says that rethinking the past is a hopeless waste of time. What he doesn’t allow himself to seriously consider is that there may be more that woould be worth knowing about what actually happened and how it came to happen.

    He refers to this idea deprecatingly when he suggests that there might be “elaborate subtext and context and supporting architecture” that would inform a single incident, or even a series of incidents. But the talking and honesty that such discovery would require seems to be beyond this family.

    A second pivot in this story appears to be a sense that the father is is to “blame” somehow. But in fact, it is the mother with whom Paul has the middle of the night fight; it is the mother who is scared of him, it is the mother whose apparent sickness Paul cannot allow any breathing space. So the father was the one with whom Paul fought, but the mother is somehow a source of volcanic rage, even though he appears to love her.

    The third pivot point is Paul’s own clearly unresolved needs and his inability to control the rage that overwhelms him on this visit. I have an 18 month old in the house visiting – and the ordinary nature of her hair trigger demands remind me of Paul, except that he is an adult.

    And a fourth pivot lies in Paul’s desire to be believed, and his suspicion that no one will ever again believe anything he says, given how he apparently behaved in the past.

    What this story does is offer no “sentimental” answers. He loves his wife and child, but we have no guarantee he will be able to nurture that love. There’s no twelve step program working through him. There’s no religious framework that could sustain a shift from rage to forgiveness. There’s no community of friends to “be there for him” in the common parlance.

    All of what he has to protect him makes him even more unlovable: the physical distance of not living in Cleveland, not visiting, not communicating; the additional distance that overeating, obesity, and masturbation supply; and the phenomenal distance created by his secretiveness. So we get the sense of someone barely clinging to control through isolation.

    His marriage and his child may save him. Unlike the Mather character of “Rollingwood”, Berger seems to have somewhat of a grip on some of life. One hopes it is enough. Funny to think that way about a fictional character. That’s how real he seems to me.

    It is interesting that the story uses almost no reference to nature (except sex) to give it heft, as if nature’s presence would be too lyrical an environment for such an “unsentimental” story. It is also interesting that the story is told in the close third person, allowing the author to create a distance between Paul and us, thus allowing him to behave very badly and yet not completely alienate us. It interests me that Paul has a name. Quite a few stories with a first person narrator have no name, making them very slippery subjects. Not so with Paul. This story also seems to work in spite of and maybe because of all that we do not know about this family. This is actually a central topic in the story – that none of us know what other people’s motives really are, that none of us know the full sub text, context, or architecture of the families we live in. Obviously, Paul is us – if we had always lived our lives on the very edge. But of course, all of us live at least a little of our lives in the extreme, and handle being there not very well. I like the extremity of the story, and that despite its extremity, it allows Paul to be fully human. I like it that he has no easy way out. Sometimes life’s like that.

    I really like this story.

  3. Aaron says:

    Betsy, I’m glad you liked this one: me, too. The emotions were piping hot, and I related totally to Paul (and agree that the close third person helped a lot): http://bit.ly/o1NJLp. We see Paul, but we also see how other see Paul, and most importantly, we see how Paul sees others seeing him.

    The slow build of the story is terrific, too, from the perspective of narrative and title (since it’s all about how people see us, the story itself should try to play with the ways in which we see Paul). At first, he’s an overweight loser trying to dodge his family. Then he’s a disgrace, the sort of black-sheeped tyrant who forces the family from his room so that he can masturbate. But then he becomes the victim of an accident — he’s the violent one, but remember that nobody leaves a fight unscathed — and we see that he’s stayed away from home because he doesn’t want to see his FAMILY seeing him as a loser. Even now, when he’s made something of himself, he fears that he’ll lose his new family, that they’ll hate him if they understand how others used to see him (“The Paul of Cleveland,” which speaks more to the power of reinvention than anything else).

    I’ve also always loved Ben Marcus’s writing, and I find that for this particular story, it gives him plenty of room to rise to the top — his clever descriptions keep using violent terms to remind us what the perceptions throughout are grounded in, and his wit succeeds at painting many of these people as realistically bumbling friends. His sister, attempting to “facially inseminate” her husband in the back seat; his former third-base-reaching cousin, who remembers one of the most crude things he’d ever said (it’s not always great to be remembered by the ones you love), and his relatives at the party, eyes glazed over by a memory, ears plugged up with disbelief.

    Good, good stuff.

  4. gatonegro says:

    I read this story last night, it’s excellent, quite sad, My personal situation is similar to that of the main character so it really hit home for me. It’s a really good story, i’ll be reading more from this writer.

  5. Ken says:

    I liked this too. I’d found Rollingwood a pointlessly mean bummer. This one, though, despite dealing with harsh, painful realities had a quality of redemption plus it had a far more developed, believable character not just the helpless sap of Rollingwood who seems set up to be punished in a cruel fashion by his own creator. The link to “A Just Recompense” above provides some fascinating stuff about Marcus and his writing method. Betsy, as always, provides many smart comments. Made me think of a line from an old Lou Reed song “Families who live out in the suburbs, often break each others hearts.”

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