New Yorker fiction (Mar 21) – “Rollingwood”

The New Yorker has made the story available online only to subscribers.

Against an array of characters and circumstances roiling with indifference, hostility, and blank walls, a father is trying hard to take care of his young son who is afflicted with asthma. Things aren’t going well.

In an interview accompanying this story, author Ben Marcus acknowledges that Kafka was probably an inspiration for the writing of this dispiriting narrative, but notes that his prime energy was drawn from his worries for the well-being of his own family:

A whole new array of terrible things can go wrong once you have a family and maybe within all that there’s the sickening sense—unfortunately convincing—that your kid might not really love you. He’ll see you as a stranger. Sometimes, on a dark morning with a howling baby, these things don’t seem so far-fetched.

A bit later in the interview, he responds to a question about the absurd elements of the story by declaring that his intention was to write one that was “Realistic.” I’m not so sure he’s accomplished precisely that. The chronological development of the story feels disoriented and askew in a way that is not completely accounted for — like a river that is clearly obstructed, but by something dark and not fully known.

I do think, though, that Marcus has offered something even more powerful. Rather than presenting itself as a bleak and straightforward narrative, this story seems to be a distillation of a father’s fears and experiences, an indirect look at his piercing inadequacies. I think this piece is more like a compressed version of any parent’s thoughts while lying awake at three in the morning, staring wide-eyed and terrified at the ceiling.

There is a poignant image early on, where father and son are sitting on the lawn of the father’s workplace. The father looks wistfully down the hill into his own past:

It’s a bright, clear day, and Mather can see all the way down to Rollingwood, the neighborhood where he grew up. . . . His old elementary school’s clock tower rises high out of the trees. The clock stopped at three-fifteen a long time ago, and unless you stand beneath the tower you’d think the little hand had fallen off, because it’s perfectly hidden behind the big hand.

In the movement from childhood and adolescence into adulthood, a line is crossed — some things are made clear and others become obscured. Some kind of time does indeed stop.


Ben Marcus is an associate professor on the Writing faculty in the Columbia University School of the Arts. His most recent work of fiction, The Flame Alphabet, will be published in January 2012.

(“Granite” from d_flat / D S / cc by-nc-sa)


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