“Stay Down and Take It”
by Ben Marcus
from the May 28, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Ben Marcus has been a relatively regular contributor to The New Yorker fiction section for several years now. “Stay Down and Take It” is his seventh since I started posting on them. I believe I have liked half of them and that I didn’t really like the other half. This is the tie breaker, then!

That being the case, I’m not sure if I find the opening paragraph promising or not. On the one hand, I always find Marcus’s writing to be interesting, fluid, snappy. But it can also border on the edge of too much. Here is the opening:

James is home early and he says we goddammit really seriously need to pack. Hup hup, time to go. It’s the weather again, and it bores me so. We live where the water loves to visit. Just a little rain off the coast, that’s all, and it’ll rise into our home. It loves to soak our rug and climb up the walls and, once, it seeped into our electronics, inside the TV cabinet, and destroyed our precious entertainment center, which keeps us — or me, anyway — from raiding the medicine cabinet at night for other pleasures. Otherwise, well, we have brilliant sunsets and the kind of grass that is absurdly tall, taller than you or me. I don’t know how it doesn’t just fall over. You’d think it had a long slender bone in each blade. Some original, beautiful creature that needs no head or limbs, because it has no enemies. Who knows.

I think this one could yield some good conversation below. It’s just the kind of thing that divides us! I look forward to your thoughts below.

As an aside, presumably this story will feature in Marcus’s forthcoming story collection Notes from the Fog. I think I like Marcus enough to be excited to read this story and, if it breaks the tie positively, I will check out the collection.

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By |2018-05-21T11:56:22+00:00May 21st, 2018|Categories: Ben Marcus, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. David May 21, 2018 at 4:53 pm

    Last week “The Long Black Line” inspired 0 comments. This one makes two weeks in a row of bland, uninspired fiction in The New Yorker. It’s not that there is anything wrong with this story (or last week’s story), but neither engaged me nor gave me anything to think about. Ho hum. Ok, back to the book I’m reading.

  2. Roger May 26, 2018 at 9:54 pm

    This story has plenty of shortcomings. I’ll mention one: Alice, our main character, narrator, and wife of James, never sounds like a woman. Not in her narration and not in her dialogue. She sounds like a guy. Testosterone drips from her every sentence. She may be the most macho character Marcus has ever given us.

  3. William May 30, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    Roger —

    I’m with you on this one. To the extent that I was not sure for most of the story whether the narrator was a woman or a man.

    I enjoyed the quirky humor but I wasn’t left with any sense of a conflict or resolution.

    After reading the NYer’s memorial to Philip Roth, I went back to read “:Defender of the Faith”. It’s good in the face of contemporary mediocrity to read something solid.

  4. Bonnie Noonan June 1, 2018 at 1:37 am

    Until the name “Alice” came up half way in, I thought I was reading about an aging gay couple. Would have been more interesting that way, I think.

  5. Larry Bone June 2, 2018 at 3:24 am

    First thing is that this story concerns a couple who are getting much older. Not exactly the hottest short story subject choice that. Readers do not like to read spoilers about how bad off they might be when they get much older. The major battle one faces when getting old is how to keep doing the things you enjoyed when younger as much as you can before death takes you away. And that is difficult to confront.

    The last comment is very interesting because we don’t know what James and Alice did as an earlier career other then that he was in the military. I would think that Alice was in HR for a bank or a financial services company because she is very analytical and James sounds analytical but so tired of everything including having to be analytical. In a business lunchroom I’ve noticed that when women talk with other women they sound more like women talking. But when when a woman talks with a man, the conversation needs to be on a more level playing field so a man and a woman talking sound more like men talking at least in the lunchroom. You might protest that marriage is not a business deal, not where both sides negotiate every day for the best personal individual benefits that can be obtained out the relationship (even if they still love each other – sort of).

    Key paragraph for me is “This is the hardest part,” James says, “Getting out of here.” “Well put, and doesn’t that apply to any old situation: a meeting, a party, a relationship, a life?” I was reading about how the number of people who travel grows larger and larger every year. Is that to get away from having to face the adversity of a bad storm like Boris, Boredom or Breast Cancer (Reality)?

    But I like how they the story resolution is that they grapple with what’s bugging them by creatively trying to gamely name what it is and thereby somewhat set themselves apart from having to endure it or “Stay Down and Take It” And that brings them more together. I am an older reader, so I relate a lot more to parts of this story. Other readers might find it boring or just sad.

    Philip Roth writes about this kind of thing in a more specific way over the greater space of a novel. But then there is so much excellent very intelligent craft in his writing.

    Maybe such a somewhat hopeful ending seems forced. This story would make such a good short film with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones like in a longer film of theirs about older people that I really admire but can’t quite easily remember the name of. Excellent actors would make this story more appealing but still it is a “hard sell” for most readers.

  6. Greg June 2, 2018 at 6:07 pm

    Thanks Larry for your valuable post! I especially learned a lot from this part:

    “In a business lunchroom I’ve noticed that when women talk with other women they sound more like women talking. But when when a woman talks with a man, the conversation needs to be on a more level playing field so a man and a woman talking sound more like men talking at least in the lunchroom. You might protest that marriage is not a business deal, not where both sides negotiate every day for the best personal individual benefits that can be obtained out the relationship (even if they still love each other – sort of).”

    Also, I enjoyed the section of the story where Alice imagines jumping out of the car as it reminded me of the scene from the film “Ladybird” where it actually happens!

    Lastly, the following writing is what stood out to me in the story:

    “It’s what he often wants and needs. Assent. I tend to pay out as much as I can, with my mouth and otherwise, but one must always monitor the personal cost, careful not to add to the deficit, which can build up and trigger a low-grade rage.”

    “I must, I have come to believe, enact a protocol with respect to what I feel. James shows his feelings so liberally that they come at a discount, and their value diminishes.”

    “Knowledge is many things, but it definitely is not power. ‘Dread’ is a better word for it, I think, though I do understand how that ultimately fails as a slogan.”

    “He must think I’m joking with him. I wish I knew how to say it better. How come so many things can sound mean and nice at the same time?”

  7. Larry Bone June 3, 2018 at 8:02 pm

    Greg,
    Thanks for pointing out that last part of the story that stands out for you. It is extremely well-written and is like an internal monologue going on in Alice’s mind. And the mind is kind of genderless and can be illogical in the way it operates. One post mentions that Alice’s voice “drips testosterone”. Women have testosterone too, just not as much as men. We don’t know to what extent they might access it for survival in a life-threatening situation. But the secretions of a human beings glands are not destiny. Knowledge is just one more tool Alice tries to use to survive old age. James seems to have more power over Alice by being more emotional than she allows herself to be. But in her approach, there is no real power. No guarantee. This is very wise. Really smart analytical people don’t necessarily have good control over their own lives nor are they able to actually help the other one in their relationship survive. If some kind of love in the end resolves the relationship between Alice and James, there is no logic to it. It is sort of unexpected god-like happenstance. That part of the story that stands out for you seems to make it resonate and seem much more profound than it would initially seem to be.

  8. Greg June 3, 2018 at 11:40 pm

    Thanks again Larry for another thought provoking post! This part made me pause:

    “Women have testosterone too, just not as much as men. We don’t know to what extent they might access it for survival in a life-threatening situation. But the secretions of a human beings glands are not destiny.”

  9. Diana Cooper June 6, 2018 at 7:03 pm

    Greg, that bit about constant assent leading to a buildup of rage was spot on. Also speaking as an “older reader” I very much connected with that and the writer earned many points from me for writing it. I agree that younger readers might find the story tiresome. As they say, “Ya hadda be there!”

  10. Greg June 7, 2018 at 5:58 am

    Thanks Diana for adding your personal context to that excerpt I had chosen. And I agree with you that a writer can win a reader over with simply one brilliant paragraph of thought!

  11. Ken June 7, 2018 at 4:38 pm

    I must take issue with comments by Roger and William that Alice sounds like a man. I’m not denying that there are certainly “typical” masculine and feminine voices. For instance, Hemingway sounds more masculine than Alice Munro. Still….this is kind of an essentializing and limiting comment. Why can’t Alice sound like a (non-stereotypical) woman? Why is her bite and rigor and logic somehow unfeminine? I really liked this. On the first read, I was laughing out loud and also cringing and part of me was thinking that maybe it was too much. The greater compassion came through on a second reading and I found the ending earned. People are complex–you can both love someone and partly hope they’ll die in order to see what that chapter of your life would be like.

  12. Greg June 8, 2018 at 5:55 am

    Thanks Ken for opening our minds to what a woman can sound like!

  13. mehbe June 13, 2018 at 6:09 am

    It never occurred to me that the narrator wasn’t a woman, while reading the story. In fact, Alice reminded me so much of one particular brilliant (and somewhat twisted) woman I used to know that I couldn’t avoid thinking of Alice as looking like her. I can think of at least two other women I’ve known or still know who could easily have been models for Alice. All of them were straight, as far as I know, but then there was a lesbian I used to know who also fit the part very well.

    I loved this story, not least because it made me laugh out loud, which I don’t often do while reading. And not just once, but several times – it actually had me in stitches for a short while, which caught me by surprise. The scene that did it was the one from which the title of the story is taken, where the newscaster keeps getting blown over. I don’t know why the imagery was so funny, but part of it was that I was used to the somewhat deadpan voice of the narrator by that point, and suddenly I could almost hear her describing the scene, with her somewhat WTF kind of drollness (and, by the way, this story could make a wonderful “small” movie, I think).

    Ah, the ending – so tender and sweet after all that had preceded it. I liked that a lot – it felt just right to me, how Marcus deftly changed the tone, and it could have easily gone so wrong.

  14. Eric June 20, 2018 at 5:33 pm

    This story was definitely less than the sum of its parts; the plot doesn’t really go anywhere (appropriately enough, I suppose). But a lot of the parts were really really good, I very much enjoyed the last two thirds of the story, and I’m glad I read it. Everybody seems to have a favorite part–mine was the fleeting sexual fantasy with the volunteer’s imaginary friend, although the “tender and sweet” ending ran a close second.
    .
    Was it a convincing woman’s voice? Well, perhaps not entirely, but I didn’t find that to be a particular problem. I don’t think this was meant to be a totally realistic story, more of an exaggerated version of reality that takes advantage of the freedoms offered by fiction to tell truths that journalism or personal history never could.

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