Marcus’s prose is deceptively straightforward, precise but chatty, and often a lot of fun – which is helpful, albeit in a confusing way, when the subject is the physical or psychological collapse of a person, or even of society as a whole... Like William Burroughs, and the George Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Marcus has a gift for letting terminology do a lot of the world-building work... But Marcus’s fiction isn’t only upsetting or grimly amusing. “The Boys”, in which a woman goes to stay with her brother-in-law and his children after the death of her sister, is mordantly funny to begin with, but transforms into a very moving expression of human kindness and connection... Is this a bleak book? Absolutely. But there’s beauty in it, too.
Marcus’s spectacular new collection of stories does something similar, transplanting ordinary predicaments...to a hazily futuristic America... Marcus’s habit of rigging up an eye-catching scenario only to leave it hanging might feel unsatisfying, were it not for the sheer line-by-line joy of his phrase-making, caught between strung-out melancholy and tart misanthropy, electric with thrilling change-ups... One or two of the more self-conscious pieces, such as Critique, styled as an architectural review, fall flat, but it’s exhilaratingly bleak stuff overall...
It is in his short stories for mainstream magazines that his fiction becomes most vital, as the form forces him to accommodate his originality of expression with the need to be intelligible. Notes from the Fog is his second collection of stories, after Leaving the Sea (2014), and both contain stories that are his best work. . . Readers will find some of the most thrilling and disturbing literary fiction of the year in this collection, though it is less successful as a whole than its best stories. Its unevenness makes one hope that Marcus might subject his own conventions to the same scrutiny to which he subjects those of realism.
There are many different emotions and reactions that pass into a reader when reading the work of Ben Marcus. You can wonder at his emotional acuity; you can be dazzled by the intellectual brilliance; you can savour the subtle lyricism of each and every sentence. But in me his work induces a kind of queasy vertigo, and I do not mean that as a bad thing. A book than can create such a visceral response is a rare thing indeed. These stories have that roller-coaster sense of both excitement and nausea. Once you have read them, it is wondrous to unpick how he manages such effects... I do not know of any writer who writes like Marcus... the genius of the collection is that despite the opaque and baroque style, it packs a punch about loneliness, obsession, illness, grief and suffering. He is the great pathologist of contemporary letters: from the Greek meaning the study of pain. In these stories, language buckles and twists in an attempt to convey what the pain of others might be like.