Rollingwood – Ben Marcus – Passive Characters

Rollingwood” by Ben Marcus is a study in the passive narrator/character.  It’s behind The New Yorker‘s pay wall, but the abstract says it all, “short story about a man trying to look after his asthmatic eighteen-month-old son.”  The word which stands out here is “trying.”  The main character, Mather, is so passive and inept that the publishers can’t say this is a short story about a man looking after his asthmatic eighteen-month-old son, but that he’s “trying to look after his son.”  Mather’s trying is similar to a failed New Year’s resolution, that moment when people examine the bubbles in their champagne, and do their best to ignore the person who each year says, they’re really going to try and loose weight.  It’s a cushion for the ego.  Mather can tell himself, I’m trying.  At least, I tried.

Another interesting thing to do with stories printed in The New Yorker, is to look at the meta tags they use on their website to describe a story.  For “Rollingwood” they use the following keywords: fathers, children, son, parents, parenthood, asthma, jobs, child care, nurseries, day care, offices, babysitters, boyfriends, exes, baby-sitters, carpools, buses, divorce, toddlers, anxiety, breakups, humidifiers, bosses, and cubicles.  Those keywords are depressingly spot on.

What “Rollingwood” does well is create a passive, hemmed-in character.  What “Rollingwood” suffers from is a passive, hemmed-in character.  The story is well-written and clear, just not too exciting.  Mather is dumped on by his ex-girlfriend, with whom he has a child.  He is walked over at work by his boss, and disrespected by his co-workers.  Even Mather’s parents seem indifferent to him.  Confronted with these problems, what does Mather do?  Not much.  Mather reacts.  Mather watches.  Mather endures.  The problem with Mather is that he’s a victim, but hasn’t yet realized how he’s a victim.

1 thought on “Rollingwood – Ben Marcus – Passive Characters”

  1. New Yorker stories have to sit with me for a few days because I am a naive reader. And usually, when my mind is in free play – building a new computer server, or repairing a hernia, gardening, whatever – it will come to me. Oh, I get it, the pilot felt the same way about the old broken broom as he did about airplanes, and that’s why he wanted to cook breakfast for the jilted woman. That was smart, I totally understand, now. Duh. I bet everybody else figured that out right away.
    And “Rollingwood” by Ben Marcus is the same for me. Except for the, I totally understand, now, part. Because I still haven’t had my a-ha moment. Which led me to the interglobalwebnet, so I could read a review by one of the smarties who figured it out and will nonchalantly explain that the humidifier is such an obvious metaphor for Mather’s sexual frustration that it seems heavy-handed. But I haven’t seen that anywhere. Nobody has cracked the code, and so maybe there is not a code to crack.
    I had this obsession with reading everything Haruki Murakami wrote. But didn’t get it most of the time. A friend of mine called his writing, abject realism (which I had to look up – see above: naive reader). The character gets a beer and drinks it. Then he makes spaghetti. And he eats it. And it’s late. And he gets another beer. And he falls asleep. I liked the stories. I just don’t really know why. But maybe I’m not supposed to know why. Maybe there is no why. (ooh, deep)
    And so I might not have my a-ha moment soon or ever. But maybe I’m not supposed to. As a reader I am left with the feeling that I have; watched events in a man’s life unfold over a period of time, not been able to predict where things were going, known myself what it feels like to have office people “play” you when you’re weakened. It was all very real. I didn’t need a lesson, a denouement. Res Ipsa Loquitor.
    Oh, wait, I get it now. The child was weakened, the father was weakened, everybody took advantage of…no. I thought I was on to something. I liked my first idea better. Reading the story was a good use of my time. I liked it. There. how’s that?

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