May 20, 2013: “The Dark Arts” by Ben Marcus
This story (available for free, so read it quick before they change their minds) started out well, I thought. But the ending seemed off, to me.
Julian is a young man with an autoimmune disorder seeking experimental stem-cell treatment in Dusseldorf, Germany. He has traveled to Europe with his girlfriend, Hayley, but they argued in the previous city and he has come to Dusseldorf alone. He waits at the train station for her every day and then goes off to get his treatment (which involves drawing blood, treating it, and then recirculation).
Two weeks go by. He’s staying in a cheap hostel for men in which he hears anonymous sex among the other residents at night. This, apparently, sets up the ending.
Julian is upset with Hayley for not coming. He’s upset with himself for spending his father’s money on the treatments (especially when he’s beginning to think that there’s nothing really wrong with him). And he’s feeling quite alone. Even the clinic cuts him loose when they decide there might be something in his brain causing the problem (which he interprets as “it’s all in his head”). So he’s feeling even more lonely and distraught when Hayley does, finally, show up.
And I don’t blame him one bit when he walks away from her. He’s kind of odd, but she’s treated him badly.
He goes back to the hostel and . . . he’s what doesn’t work for me . . . resolves to allow one of the other residents to come to him in the night.
Essentially, he’s so lonely that he’ll be happy with even this kind of meaningless touch. I was with him right until then. Maybe you don’t agree?
I agree that the ending was less than satisfying, but overall I liked this story and think it’s one of the best New Yorker stories so far this year. Very dark, but funny, which I think works very well with this protagonist. Some of my favorite stories are ones where the protagonist is unsavory, maybe even dispicable, but the writer is able to make him or her sympathetic, which I think Marcus has been able to do here.
I found Julian not only to be a whiner, but a whiner who wines about cuddling. He also was the kind of extravagantly eccentric character who exists only in literary fiction or Woody Allen movies, what with the quips and the melancholy plans to get it on in the hostel. Despite his quirks, he’s a total bore. It is not interesting to read about a terribly ill person who wallows in self-pity about being terribly ill.
I think the ending works. It’s unexpected but not incongruous and is actually foreshadowed in the first paragraph and then later in Julian’s dream (which turns out to be part real). The brain-tumor diagnosis (or whatever it is on the x-ray), in addition to Hayley’s poor treatment of him, frees him up mentally to take this dramatic leap.