Ben Marcus: “What Have You Done?”

08/04/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 8, 2011.

Right from the title, Marcus sets a clever tone for Paul’s long postponed return to his family’s yearly reunion, for while the question is normally “What have you been up to,” the characters who interact with Paul — the other Bergers — can use only the past tense, a remembrance of “What have you done?” It’s a terrible atmosphere to head into, thrusting yourself into a crowd of people who fear or resent you, for in some ways it locks you back into the body of the person you used to be, a devolving situation. But it’s a perfect scene to write about, and in choosing a close, relaxed third person, we’re able to observe Paul both from within and without, an especially clever narrative move when Marcus has Paul reflecting on the way he sees himself through others, or the way he thinks and feels others must think and feel about him.

“They must have huddled there watching the arrivals board, hoping in the backs of their mind, and the mushy front parts of their minds, too, yearning with their entire minds, that Paul would do what he usually did–or didn’t–and just not come home.” That’s one heck of a welcoming opening, eh? And when he sees them, “pressed so tightly together you could almost have buckshot the three of them down with a single pull” (and note the threat of violence throughout, put into the service of gentler descriptions), he feels as if he’s being taken off to jail (“You have been sentenced to a week with your family!“), and in his efforts to put on a happy face — to not be the “one who had triggered all the difficulty yet again with his bullshit and games” — he ends up overdoing: “His father looked stricken, as if Paul might be moving in for a hug.” What’s awful above all else, is that Paul, older and wiser, gets it: “Today’s honest feeling was shit-soaked fear, because someone’s son had come home and his track record was, well, not the greatest. Paul understood, he understood, he understood, and he nodded and tried to smile, because they couldn’t really nail him for that.” He’s here to take ownership of what he’s done, hopefully so that he can move forward.

And boy, does he have stuff to move forward to. Marcus takes his time getting there, making us wonder just what sort of person Paul is, throwing in just enough self-doubt from the overweight, self-loathing man, to paint the most pathetic of pictures: “He’d been back in his childhood house, what, all of ten minutes before his pants were at his ankles and his little organ was out, lonely from the long flight, looking for friction.” No wonder he hasn’t come home: he’s a loser. The twist, however, is that it’s the exact opposite . . . and nobody believes him. Since he’s been away, he has married a woman named Andrea (he calls her “And,” or sometimes, “And More,” which is just a cute little detail), and he has a three-year-old son, Jack. He’s become a professional woodworker, like his father, though he downplays his own talents, noting that it’s mostly done by machines these days. “He smiled and wanted to say more, to fill in the blanks, but they looked at him as if he were the strangest creature they’d ever seen.” No wonder he hasn’t come home: to them, he’s a loser. It continues at the reunion, where he sits with relatives “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, rather than the really elaborate subtext and context and supporting architecture that fucking deeply informs single events–accidents–that somehow get out of control.” (Note that reversal here, too, of family abuse.)

In any case, Marcus squeezes a lot of good material out of the premise, throws in red herrings that allow him to keep things simple (his mother is painted on the verge of death, with her “amber colony of pill bottles”), and reaches a highly satisfying ending, the son, fleeing early, trying to find a way to present, to his family, “the parts of their son that would not hurt them.” Shame plays heavily here, as does regret, but at the same time, so does Paul’s anger at these people who should be unconditional in their love: he understands being hated, but he longs to be loved. A particularly telling moment is when he hangs out with his cousin, Carla:

“I’ll just never forget something you said to me, Paul. I still remember it.”

“What did I say?” He was proud in advance of this terribly clever thing he’d said as a kid. So clever that Carla had never forgotten it!

“You said, ‘What is a cousin for if you can’t put your finger in her vagina?'”

Is this it? Is this what he is to be remembered by? “The Paul of Cleveland, with his mean tone and low aims.” Though he’s changed, “new or old, disgusted with himself or just tired,” of what value is change if you can’t buy anything with it? That’s a depressing thought, but it’s a successful story, with Marcus’s skillful writing finally having the opportunity to rise to the limits of an excellent plot. Let’s leave with a few zingers:

  • Paul once wore a “friendship-defeating beard”
  • His sister and Rick sit in the back seat and “try to inseminate each other facially”
  • Children at the reunion are occasionally “yanked from the pack and forced to run a gantlet of ogling older Bergers, who poked and kissed and hugged him until he broke free and returned to his friends, half raped and traumatized”
  • Of a construction site, “a village of concrete foundations filled with sand, rebar poking through like the breathing tubes of men buried alive”


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