“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.