Ben Marcus' "Cold Little Bird"

2015-10-20-1445355418-8011353-816IUXQHXsL._UX250_.jpgThere is a moment in Ben Marcus' recent New Yorker short story, "Cold Little Bird," when the parents Rachel and Martin take their precocious 10 year old, Jonah, to a therapist after he is caught reading a book, Lies, whose typeface, "glazed in blood," describes how "the Jews" according to Jonah "caused 9/11 and they all stayed home that day so they wouldn't get killed." Jonah had already been acting strangely and in particular "angry, depressed, anxious, remote, bizarre...a Jew-hating Jewish child who might very well be dead inside." He refuses to hug them. The therapist concludes,

"What you are upset about, in relation to your son, may not fall under the purview of medicine, though...To be honest, I was on the fence about medication. Whatever is going on with Jonah, it does not present as depression. In my opinion Jonah does not have a medical condition."

The scene recalls a theme Marcus developed in an earlier story, "The Dark Arts," about an elusive illness the main character is suffering from and in turn The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice which both deal with a spiritual malady camouflaged by medical symptoms. Jonah is a wonderful creation, an example of the child as the vehicle for the unspoken inner life of his parents. While Martin claims to be proud of his identity, he and his wife are, in effect, the typical assimilated couple. "Last month was Yom Kippur and you didn't fast. You didn't go to services. You don't ever say Happy New Year on Rosh Hashanah," Jonah says accusatorily. And talk about lack of emotion or emptiness here is a description of the mechanical sex that Jonah's parents employ to comfort each other:

"They used a cream. They used their hands. They used an object or two. During the brief strain of actual fornication they persisted with casual conversation about the next day's errands."

Is it surprising that this child doesn't like being touched? Like father, like son, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. All the old homilies apply. What's really upsetting about Jonah as a character is ultimately how loyal he is to his parents and their values. It's a little like the curse on the House of Atreus in the Oresteia. If you remember, the mother of the troubled child in The Bad Seed finds out, in the course of the drama, that her real mother was a serial killer.

photo of Ben Marcus

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}