Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Ben Marcus's "The Glow-Light Blues" was originally published in the June 22, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.

June 22, 2015I like Ben Marcus, so I’m looking forward to reading this and to reading all of the comments below. Please join in the conversation!

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By |2015-06-15T12:07:51+00:00June 15th, 2015|Categories: Ben Marcus, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Brandon Taylor June 15, 2015 at 11:39 pm

    I really enjoyed this story. Ben Marcus has always been hit or miss with me. The first I read of him–his fantastic story Dark Arts–made me go out and buy his collection of short fiction. I’m left with the impression that Ben Marcus likes to mix slang with lyrical flights of fancy, using 21st century vernacular whenever things get too real emotionally. That definitely rings true as a coping mechanism, but in fiction, it’s kind of flat, no? I don’t think anyone has mastered the 21st century spoken idiom in a way that makes me especially happy to see it in fiction, in dialogue or woven into the narrative. It’s just so close to reality that it’s jarring to me. No one’s managed to elevate it in an artistic or interesting way from its everyday usage. But whatever.

    This story was gorgeous, to be honest. He had me over a barrel with the way he detailed the gradual dehumanization of a man. It’s the sort of story that lends itself well to analysis. You could read so many things into this story: from Holocaust narrative to a riff on Captain America, the supersoldier or Frankenstein’s monster. There’s the fat and juicy allegory of tech culture. There’s metaphor for how technology emotional disenfranchises us, etc. I think that’s what makes this story different from a lot of the fiction in the Fiction Issue. This story is full, bloated even, thematically. It gestures toward “art” without fretting over meaning because I don’t think Marcus really cares if we read into this story or no. It also helps that it’s beautifully written and wonderfully told. There’s something easy and anecdotal about narrative, folding back on itself in odd ways, expanding and contracting unexpectedly. Marcus definitely made use of the “make the familiar unfamiliar” technique here, to good effect.

    I’m also glad that he shed a lot of his slangy frippery toward the end and just dug in to give us straight-up realism. The family building was masterful. He writes family dynamics very well. To be honest, he makes it seem easy, with such deft strokes painting together a portrait of quiet, mundane anxiety that plagues us all, really. I loved the ending more than the beginning because it felt easier and truer. I do think it should have ended (in a way reminiscent of Nachtman stories) with the hug in the coat closet between Kippler and Carl. But I did enjoy the actual ending a great deal, though it did feel disjointed.

    Anyway, a fantastic story. Be sure to listen to him read it on Soundcloud. He has a great voice.

  2. Adrienne June 16, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    I’ll listen – thanks for the heads up Brandon! I agree that this was a masterful piece…

    There is so much to look at in it, that I’ll just mention a couple things that stuck out to me. The parable focused on foo/eatingd: a HUGE issue for many today. Our culture is looking for perfection and we are willing to overlook our inherent intuition and desire to seek out the pleasures of the process and the sociality of eating, just to achieve something that does not even exist. We are eliminating choices as a necessary part of our lives.

    Also, the idea is creative and the writing is fantastic. It is clear, clean and crisp. Ben Marcus is poetic in this story, juggling clever phrases to bring us inside Carl’s head. Those pieces of masterful language give stunning visual imagery, for we are to know all about this man and his face to truly understand his pain… without a photograph. There is true storyteller craft at work here.

    I loved these lines:
    • “…Carl instead collected drive-by hugs. He was heavily touched, right on the body, by people he’d hardly even met.”
    • “Carl and his team were pressured to pee-shame the status quo.”
    • “Rough on the eyes, tough to the touch.”
    • “The winter failed, and along came April, one of the twelve punishments.”

    I also enjoyed the small glimpses of hope in his mother’s “revisionist birth narrative” despite the doom and gloom Carl reads into it. We meet those hopeful emotions at the end when he, himself, has married and has his own son.

    I look forward to more by Ben Marcus. After all of the feather-ruffling that has been going on, this was a nice change.

  3. Rosalind June 20, 2015 at 7:29 am

    The Grow Light Bues hit a high note. Marcus’ ” agony” face shows us a 21st century ” freak show”, with its “ultimate privacy grab”. ” Mysteries one, us nothing”.
    How does one make sense out of our reality? We give birth. Carl is saved. .”Someone new, Someone Special”, life’s miracle, like Carl’s mother said.
    “Do not play dead while you are still alive”

    I will now have my morning smoothie-

  4. Greg June 23, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    Thank you Brandon, Adrienne and Rosalind for sharing your observations and appreciation of this story. You have added to my enjoyment!

  5. Sean H June 24, 2015 at 4:08 am

    Surprised to see the positive comments here. This one was a dud. A rather flabby version of a George Saunders story. A good short story needs to be tight, unified, a model of concision and form; this was just dystopia on autopilot. I wasn’t a fan of The Flame Alphabet either but at least the premise was engaging and there were some interesting pseudo-philosophical ruminations that rose to the level of at least a middling Margaret Atwood level sci-fi. This one really makes me want to move Marcus away from the genre altogether. I love his avant-garde spirit and he has shown a real depth of intelligence in his non-fiction (though the intellectual airs he lays on are a little thick sometimes, he and his wife Julavits both work way too hard at cultivating the appearance of thoroughgoing NYC intellectuals right down to the chic/overpriced glasses) but this story was about as unmemorable and mediocre as you get.

  6. lotusgreen June 24, 2015 at 5:30 pm

    No review here. Those of you who know me a little bit by this time know what I would say anyway, and you’re right, that’s just what I’d say. Why repeat myself?

    But in an off-side conversation in another topic (the Summer Fiction Issue, with madwoman) the question of the popularity of vampires came up. She didn’t get their popularity and neither did I. So then along came this story, and a TV series based on the books by Amazon.com’s #1 favorite mystery writer out of 100 (Wayward Pines; Crouch, 8 stars), and I’ve got to start figuring it’s me that’s out of step.

    And then the two conversations came together in my head. Is this really an age thing? If we had a chart of the ages of the reviewers here, would the taste lines be drawn?

    I loved science fiction when I was a kid, and read everything; heck, I’m from the Twilight Zone generation. But now all you get from me is complaints. If these differences are age-based, then why? I don’t buy that I’m too old to “get” good fiction, but could it really be that the life of the current person under, what? 40? 50?, has just had such different life experiences, or speaks just enough of a different language, or contextually identifies with a whole other set of individuals and situations than I do? If true, this would make shared taste very rare indeed.

  7. Adrienne June 24, 2015 at 6:28 pm

    Lily! I do not know you well enough yet to “guess” your thoughts on the story! Please tell me!

    I think age/generation certainly affects the direction of literature – Salinger, Plath, Kerouac… Wharton and Cather… the Brontes and George Eliot… Some things are timeless – Dracula, Frankenstein… George MacDonald’s and Tolkien’s creatures… I think the “packaging” changes. (As I write these down I see that I am not very “well-rounded” in my choice of authors – could this by why we cannot find what we deem to be “good”…? We like what we like?)

    I have teenagers that LOVE dystopian stories. But I don’t. My husband loves horror. I don’t. I am bored with utopian societies, zombies, anime, and mommy-fiction. So I don’t read them. But there are new things that come along with these boring genres that I find exciting: more books, more stories, great titles, more people reading, more people writing, more people talking about stories.

    I think the voice that is “out there” right now is the voice trying to reach out to an audience that we may not belong to… and I think I am okay with that. Maybe because there’s is still so much of the “old”, “good” stuff out there that I haven’t read yet… And occasionally, I find a gem in current literature: “All the Light We Cannot See”… “The History of Love”… “Truth and Beauty”…

    It waxes and wanes – but so do we… Sometimes we meet the “duck” to our “goose” and the stars align and we are happy and feel brilliant and well-read.

    Most times – most generations – most stories are probably mediocre… Some are published long before they could ever be appreciated or even needed. A waste of paper to me transports my children to a world where they imagine, think, dream, prepare for adulthood…

    Sean is “surprised” to see positive comments about this story. I am never surprised to find that someone has a different opinion than me – a different taste – a different appreciation. We are all different and there are stories for each of us that reach us differently on different days. That’s the beauty of this art.

    I think we are in an interesting place – critiquing stories from one location on a regular basis. We didn’t choose the story. The New Yorker did and we feel compelled to read it – not an auspicious beginning for any critique. We are coming to them cautiously, wary, ready to be disappointed – again. A few will be enough to change some of our minds. And others, frankly, are just junk to some of us.

    But what a way to be with others and talk about what’s out there. It’s fantastic! And I look forward to it each week…

  8. lotusgreen June 24, 2015 at 7:11 pm

    Oh my, Adrienne — now I don’t know if you’ll know why what I’m going to say to you is a very high compliment, but… you sound like Betsy. I think you started showing up just as she was needing to pull back. I tend to think she is a much nicer person than I am and I’m beginning to worry that you may be as well.

    My thoughts? Oh, really. Go back and see some of my old posts. There are charts and everything. Let us just say, that a face that is becoming more and more horrifying due to switching to a diet of light, — this is not somebody I wish to curl up with in a comfortable nook.

    I’ve said it before, and oh okay, I’ll say it again. I want character, not caricature, occurrences that may be real, instead of something that may be symbolic of something that may be real. I want someone who learns something so that I may learn something, not every time, sure, but now and then would be nice.

  9. Roger June 24, 2015 at 10:06 pm

    I’m with Sean on this story. It seemed to be going for the yuck effect, and I suppose it got there. Shteyngart did satirical sci-fi way better in Super Sad True Love Story. A sense of humor for this sort of thing is more appealing than the constant heavy-handed expression of disgust. Reading it was like having a miniature version of the author sitting on my shoulder, shouting “Look! Look how terrible we humans are! This could really happen!” But of course it couldn’t. It was too implausible even for satire. At the risk of stating the obvious, of course Carl would abandon the experiment right away and go home to enjoy a milk shake. It’s like Lily said, character beats caricature, and that’s as true in satirical work as anywhere else. The silver lining was the interview, where Marcus did a nice job explaining what he was up to.

  10. Sean H June 25, 2015 at 1:05 am

    Thanks, Roger. And to Adrienne, I only wrote that I’m surprised this particular piece was positively reviewed because the critical acumen is actually pretty high on this site. And, unlike many lit-related web sources (Buzzfeed, The Millions, The Rumpus, LA Review of Books), the website doesn’t delete critical comments in favor of those who blow smoke up the author’s rear. Marcus is a big boy, he can handle some critiques, and the ones he should be getting for this flaccid endeavor are negative ones.

  11. Adrienne June 25, 2015 at 11:33 am

    Absolutely, Sean! It’s what I love about here! The openness is fantastic!

    And I, too, prefer character over caricature… I do not like anything that is not about “real” life – hence, hating the apocalyptic stuff out there, dysotpian fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc… I prefer a good solid story that makes me re-examine me, others, or life in general. Realistic literary fiction is my favorite!

    But sometimes, I just find something IN something that I would never CHOOSE to read, without some sort of compelling reason (to review and talk about it with someone), something that reaches me somehow. And here, I think I was impressed that it touched on the idea of food and how our society is really okay with removing biological needs/desires in exchange for some sort of false security. The idea of over-riding intuition – of removing pleasure in exchange for… what???

    The characters? Not the most well-developed caricature out there – but the timeliness of the theme caught my attention.

    I just found another part of the story that made me pause for a moment and consider…

  12. Greg June 29, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Great points Sean and Roger. I learn so much from you guys each week!

    Thank you.

  13. Dan June 30, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    As a 40+-year reader of science and other speculative fiction, I certainly have no objection to seeing examples of the genre appear in the New Yorker. The Marcus piece, however, is not a good representative. As others have noted, this read like a poor imitation of George Saunders, whose work I really enjoy.

    A maxim of good speculative fiction is that the author should choose a couple of things to change, and everyone and everything else should remain “realistic”. My main problem with this piece was that Marcus violated this rule. I can accept that a company would try to develop a way to feed people through light. What I cannot accept is that the narrator would go along with the side effects as (sole?) beta tester of the process, that the FDA would not be involved, and that none of the other employees would care.

    I recognize that this appears to have been intended as satire. I think it fell flat–partly because it’s so easy to satirize high-tech startups (cf. Soylent, apparently a real attempt to help coders and other busy people avoid the trouble of eating real food), and partly because it was so cack-handed. Now that I think of it, including some realistic aspects could have improved the satire a good deal. For example, the FDA seems ripe for mocking.

    Another week, another disappointment.

  14. lotusgreen June 30, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    Oh man, I can’t believe they’re actually using that name. I guess they think their audience is too young to remember what went into making the stuff in the movie of the same name. (If you’re too young too, let’s just say that maybe this was the answer to over-population.)

  15. Trevor Berrett June 30, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    WHAT?! They are actually using the name Soylent on their product??

    [looks it up]

    They are! I cannot believe it! Sure, they’re basing it on Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, where it really is soy and lentils, but surely they realized that most people would have some, uh, negative associations with the word Soylent?? That’s pretty funny.

  16. Dan June 30, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    Isn’t that the best!?

    Anyway, given the existence of Soylent (TM), I feel kind of like Marcus is treading in territory left untrodden by Tom Lehrer, who is said to have given up satire when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize because what could be more ridiculous than that.

  17. Brandon Taylor July 3, 2015 at 12:20 am

    I find some of the responses odd. Then again, I now realize that I didn’t read this as sci-fi or speculative fiction. It was just general fiction with a few science-y trappings. As a scientist, I view all science fiction as laughable at best, lol, so it kind of fit in with the rest of it, science-wise, to me. At any rate, I rather enjoyed it. Certainly surpassed most of the offerings from the New Yorker lately. I definitely reject any kind of generational, prescriptivist sentiment. It seems a bit…grumbly to me. But to each, their own! Cheers, friends. ~~~~

  18. Ken July 3, 2015 at 3:55 am

    I thought I was losing my mind when I read the first two comments praising this story. There’s no doubt he can write and that it is stylistically clever, but I agree–this is dystopia by numbers and has little illuminating to reward the reader for trying to crack his challenging style and adjust to the phraseology and world of the story. A lot of work to ultimately feel cranky. I literally, also, started to fall asleep while reading this and I was not at all tired when I started it.

  19. mehbe July 4, 2015 at 5:22 am

    I liked it mainly because it is the first satire I’ve come across of the current “disruptive” nonsense in business and tech, which I loathe. And because there were enough good lines to keep me amused. The surprisingly sweet final section felt like it belonged in a different story (a bit of a disruptive effect, itself), but somehow it still managed to work for me.

    Like others have mentioned, I got a George Saunders hit from the story somewhere along the line, but unlike the others, I didn’t think that was such a bad thing. Oddly, it didn’t feel so much as if Marcus was imitating Saunders, as he was paying homage.

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