Feb 1 2022

My Best Read for 2021: Short Story Review of “The Feast” by Mark Marchenko (2020)

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My Best Read for 2021: Short Story Review of “The Feast” by Mark Marchenko (2020)

After spending a month brooding on what I’ve read over the past year, I’ve determined that Mark Marchenko’s “The Feast” (Zeenith, (Wyandotte, MI: New Pop Lit, 2020) was the best short story I read for 2021.

It is a straightforward narrative of entanglement with bureaucracy (and those armed bureaucrats we call “cops”), genuinely Kafkaesque in the best sense of the word (as the LA Review of Books recently pointed out)—a nightmare of inane questioning, hindering, holding (as in being held in custody):

“Yes, I understand,” I assured him, but at the same time, to say the truth, I felt a bit lost. It is like when you explain something so simple that is not even worth explaining, and if you are not understood, you start doubting if the problem is not in reality on your side. (“The Feast”)

In other words, this is a place where all logical arguments fail to change the circumstances. The story also contains a bit of radically juxtaposed imagery, in a very dreamlike, authentically surreal manner.

And though it is a “fictional” Moscow where Marchenko’s story takes place, the endless netting and knotting of empty explanations from security officials, accompanied by a preference for nonsensical commands that must be obeyed, reminds one of Baylor professor Alan Jacob’s recent encounters with American healthcare bureaucracy—a nauseous trek and trial that led him to later compare his experiences to Dicken’s circumlocution machine. For Jacobs, “the object of these systems is the generation of despair.”

 Yet I was also reminded of the dread from Yiddish writer (originally from Ukraine) Sholom Aleichem’s (1859–1916) short story of “The Pair”––a story where a couple are doomed to be cannibalized, and yet, while in their holding cell (or coup), one explains to the other how

There is nothing in the world to which God’s creatures can’t become accustomed. Our prisoners had grown so used to their troubles that they now thought things were as they should be, just like the proverbial worm that has made its home in horseradish and thinks it sweet. (“The Pair,” trans. Shlomo Katz, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, eds. Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, (New York: Viking, 1954) p. 202)

Marchenko’s “The Feast,” however, also resembled that moment in “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm” chapter to The Lord of the Rings, where Gandalf reads from the Book of Mazarbul the words of the doomed dwarves: “we cannot get out.” But while the circumstances are crystal clear for the characters in Tolkien, in Marchenko’s tale, the main character is trapped in convolutions of organizational documentation, entangled in endless obscurities:

The document consisted of two parts: the main text and the area below where you put your signature. The annotation said that the person who signed it was aware of the information in the text and that this person was not going to file any complaints should he decide that he in fact wasn’t acknowledged with the text. (“The Feast”)

Still, let us hope for Marchenko’s protagonist, as well as for Jacobs and ourselves, that we never get too used to these obstacles of institutionalization. Let us hope that we too, like the hardy band in Tolkien, are able to “get out.”