‘The Dark Arts’ by Ben Marcus

The Dark Arts by Ben Marcus, 2013

The magic trick:

Contrasting the actions and words of Hayley with the way the protagonist describes her; and using that contrast to create confusion in the reader’s mind about what actually is what in the story

Yesterday’s Ben Marcus feature introduced us to a self-loathing protagonist teaching creative writing on a cruise ship. Today’s story gives us a similarly self-loathing protagonist similarly displaced – only this one is in Berlin, fending off a mysterious illness with some kind of experimental treatment. Maybe it’s not experimental. Maybe I made that part up. But maybe that’s not a coincidence. This story introduces a lot of ideas, threatens to contradict many of them, never goes all the way in any one direction, and as a result the reader winds up a little confused about what is what exactly.

It’s a neat effect. His father says exactly what he doesn’t mean as a reflex against confrontation. Is that what our protagonist doing this entire story? What happened in this dream of his in the hostel? And, oh, what about his girlfriend?

She exists for most of the story only in the descriptions of our protagonists’ thoughts. So it’s more than a little jarring when we meet her near the end of the text and find her to be much kinder and more committed than the protagonist made her out to be. It sends our already-confused sense of reality into a tailspin.

And that’s quite a trick on Marcus’s part.

The selection:

The receptionist sighed. She was a human being after all.

“This person exists for you?”

“Not just for me.”

“And you say she is coming?” The receptionist struck a hopeful tone.

Oh, God, he thought, let’s not be hopeful anymore. Where has it got us, really?

“No,” Julian said. “I’d say she is not.”


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