Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Ben Marcus’s “The Dark Arts” was originally published in the May 20, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
“The Dark Arts” takes us to Düsseldorf where a young man named Julian Bledstein, suffering from some kind of autoimmune disorder, is seeking experimental treatment while waiting for his girlfriend Hayley to finally arrive on the train. He’s already been there for two weeks, injecting himself with a strange concoction of his own bone marrow, lonely. He and Hayley had planned this trip together, but after a fight in France, he came on alone to commence the treatment:
Treatment — well, that perhaps wasn’t the word for it. His was one of the incurable conditions. An allergy to his own blood, as he not so scientifically thought of it. An allergy to himself was more like it. His immune system was confused, fighting against the home team. Or his immune system knew exactly what it was doing.
The darks arts comes up once explicitly: “the dark arts they conjured on his marrow once they smuggled it out of him.” But this is much more about the dark art of relationships, the dark art of the body, and the dark art of existence itself. After all, Julian may be no more sick than you or I, he’s just more aware. It strikes him later in the story, “Perhaps this was just what it felt like to be alive.”
This is a very dark story, rich in image and atmosphere and verbal games that showcase Marcus’s interest in language as an expression of the human condition. In Germany, Julian cannot understand the language, and most people cannot understand him. Already acutely aware of his body and it’s failures (“Bodies were the jettisoned waste of something too great to comprehend.”), this condition further reduces him to just a body. He cannot understand the television. He cannot communicate, other than through crude gestures, to the attendants. He is alone — Hayley isn’t coming — and is hyper-sensitive to the small space his body inhabits, his body that he thinks looks like a corpse, frightening to the natives who stare at him:
Julian could only walk faster, wincing, until the shopkeepers released him from eye contact. Had anyone, he wondered, ever studied the biology of being seen? The ravaging, the way it literally burned when you fetched up in people’s sight lines and they took aim at you with their minds? He wanted to summon a look of kindness and curiosity in return, a look that might make them forgive his miserly ways, his trespass on their ancient, superior city. But his face lacked the power to convey. He’d stopped trying to use it for silent communication — the gestures you tendered overseas, absent a shared language, to suggest that you were not a murderer. Such facial language was for apes, or some mime troupe in Vermont. Mummenschanz people who emoted for a living. He ate with his face and spoke with it. Sometimes he hid it in his hands. That should have been enough.
Anyway, why not let them think that he meant them harm, these people of Düsseldorf? Give them a good scare.
He feels the universe is trying to correct itself by destroying him, but that may be the case of humanity in general (“And, on the eighth day, God made his creatures so lonely they wept.”).
Of course, it’s just as likely that Julian is suffering from a terrible rare disease, and this is a fine exploration of that terrible state, what it does to Julian’s relationships, what it leads Julian to.
The story begins and ends in darkness. At the beginning, Julian is just waking up to a dark winter morning in his hostel, after a night in which he heard people using their bodies for unspeakable things. In the end, the dark night is coming on, and Marcus has led us perfectly to this disturbing darkness.
This is a fine story, presumably a worthy inclusion in Marcus’s forthcoming short story collection, Leaving the Sea, out in January. I’m looking forward to more.
With “The Dark Arts,” Ben Marcus puts us, once again in extremity. I liked both “Rollingwood” and “What Have You Done?”, and I recommend this story as well.
Once again, we have a story with the word “art” in the title. What Marcus means by “the dark arts” is clearly multiple, given that “s” in arts. The reader is thus primed to be watching — one of the dark arts clearly being alternative medical treatment, another, I think, being the ability to understand yourself, and another being sex, and another being the ability to connect with others — given what we are like. And there is an argument to be made here for writing itself to be one of the dark arts, and yet what Marcus means by “dark” must be filled with shadows and multiplicity.
That it appears in The New Yorker issue for innovation and invention is fitting, given that invention has long been a topic for literature, and given that the story uses the experimental medical clinic as its setting, but the story’s interplay with this particular volume of The New Yorker is a separate discussion.
Julian Bledstein is in Germany for some last-ditch medical treatment for a condition that has made him appear to be “a man dressed up as his own corpse.” The problem of the story appears first to be that he mortally sick, but then his problem appears to be more serious than that: he is waiting for someone who is not going to appear, he is lonely in the extreme, and he is being treated badly, used, in fact, or abandoned, at the moment of most need.
One of the things I liked about this story is Julian himself — his selflessness, his way with words, his waiting. He is in extremis, like Marcus’s other men, but this time he is not the dangerous one — except to himself. The story, in fact, pleads for Julian to be more dangerous, but the rage is instead placed squarely in Hayley, his girlfriend, who is so angry that Julian thinks her angry even while they make love. Of course, that look he sees as anger might merely be the inevitable selfishness of sex, and the poverty of his own pleasure, given his illness. In the place of the rage that he might feel at being abandoned by Hayley is need: “He’d been fucking homeschooled in emotional helplessness.”
Lurking like smoke behind this story, like ghosts, are Hemingway and Melville, and also Camus and Beckett, with all of their attendant mystery and rage. There’s Bartleby, whom Melville drew to be full retreat from life. As we watch Julian wait at the train station for Hayley day after day, idle and poisoned by his own despair, you have to be reminded of Bartleby’s deliberate idleness. Bartleby should be writing (well, copying), and frequently you think that Julian should be writing, given the way he thinks about things, the way he phrases things. But all that he “writes” are his gravestone inscriptions. That whiff of the grave that Marcus insists upon remind me of Bartleby, too.
At the center of the story are the extremes of rage and helplessness, and Hemingway’s ghost plays in here. Julian is waiting for a girl to appear on the train from Paris, and the girl’s name is Hayley. Reminds me of Hadley, the Hemingway wife who lost a satchel of Hemingway’s stories on the train. What rage Hemingway must have felt. This echo feels more deliberate to me, as if Marcus wants us to wonder why Julian isn’t angry, the way Hemingway must have been angry, to the degree that a man like Hemingway would have been angry, as if the appearance of Julian’s anger must be the sign of life we want Julian to feel. We are waiting for the clinic to heal Julian, but the healing has to be in the form of rage.
We are, in fact, by the time the story ends, practically begging for some means for Julian to express his rage; it is as if the story has been constructed so as to legitimize rage.
As I write, there is the gigantic noise outside of the road grader that appears every spring to smooth the ruts in the dirt road I live on. The winter makes a mess and the town puts it right again. Marcus is the opposite: he wants those extreme ruts of human existence revealed. He proposes that we live in the hostile environment of our own intense and barely understood emotions, something physically expressed by Julian’s own habitation, a hostel whose habits and rules he barely understands, but whose strange hospitality/hostility, so to speak, he must accept, given his poverty.
I love Julian. He thinks he’s dying (aren’t we all), and he is wrestling with “where the ill go in search of one another” (don’t we all wrestle such), and he is consumed with the way Hayley “built a firewall around her own needs and moods” and the way he knows his own need for her “stank, it truly stank.” There is his own firewall, as well, though — his pre-occupation with his illness that ends in idleness. Something has to happen.
This is a strange, long story, and it must be long, because we need to be persuaded of the rightness of the ending, when Julian decides he can be the stranger who says, “Wouldn’t you like to join me?” This is an ambitious story, ambitious to discuss the demands of existence itself, and I think it succeeds. When Julian thinks “he would be the stranger,” it must be an echo of Camus. The strangeness of his decision and the strangeness of his environment are as desolate as Meursault’s, and the grandeur of the story is that it rises as right from its origins, and as different, as vapor is different from the valley.
There is much more to think about here in what Marcus has done and what he is saying, but I look forward to what other people have to say about that.
The story shows off Marcus’s virtuosity with language. Nonetheless, for me the story failed, because despite (maybe because) of how hard it strives for emotional impact, I found myself utterly not interested in Julian. He is a terribly ill man who feels terribly sorry for himself. He whines. He whines about cuddling. I didn’t want to hear or read that. He makes a sad plan to have a liaison with a random man in the hostel where he’s staying, once the place is dark. I really didn’t want to read that. Sure, he slings some good quips, like when he offers to show the German doctor how to refund his money. But overall, he is so solipsistic that I stopped feeling sorry for him. And I feel so bad about that. I should probably go do a good deed to compensate. Then again, maybe I’ll just ask my wife for extra cuddling tonight….
I found this story very odd. At first, I was put-off and found it so grim I didn’t even want to keep going. Then I got in to the rhythm of it and, helped out by the verbal virtuosity, started to be interested. Then I got tired of listening to him. What I don’t think that Betsy pointed out is that, at least to me, Julian is a terribly unreliable narrator. Betsy seems to feel he SHOULD be enraged at Hayley. Yet, when she appears, she seems perfectly reasonable and even kind to him and it made me feel that his description of their fight and his desperate longing for her are perhaps unreliable since once she does appear all he does it mistreat her and leave her. Given his illness, or potential illness, and his paranoid and nihilistic musings about things, can we trust what he says? Of course, it does have its own “inner” truth but as objective fact it seems most of what we hear from Julian is dubious.