Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What Have You Done?

The ending of Ben Marcus’s “What Have You Done?” (The New Yorker, 8/8/11) unveils the source of the eviscerating humor of the story like a headstone that is unveiled at a gravesite long after the burial. The story is an inadvertent essay on the power of endings because the ending eradicates everything that precedes it. By the time you finish reading about the central character Paul’s past as he returns home to Cleveland for the Berger family reunion with his mom, dad, sister Alicia and brother-in-law Rick, all that matters is the future. Even if the knockout ending in which Paul’s problem is revealed, i.e., that no one believes anything he says and that there is no way to make them believe it, destroys the hilarity leading up to it, it’s still damned funny along the way.  The experience of reading the story is somewhat akin to not remembering the great time you’ve had at party after you’ve vomited all over yourself and blacked out. Describing Alicia and Rick, Marcus writes, “Alicia and Rick had their whole married lives to exchange fluids and language, but for some reason they’d needed to wait until Paul was there to demonstrate how clandestine and porno they were.” Left alone with her son, Paul’s mother experiences “the panic of someone trapped in a cage with an animal.” Brother-in-law Rick’s nonchalant line “How’s business, Paul?” elicits from Paul the thought that “these questions were just a gateway for nonsexual statistical intercourse between underachieving men.”

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