This new collection of stories by Ben Marcus is brilliant, astute, interestingly surrealistic, a bit insane, stubbornly ambiguous, utterly baffling, and crazily frustrating, in that order.
“Leaving the Sea” is Marcus’s fourth book, one that beckons and then, finally, aggravates. It starts as a promising series of largely realistic stories, filled with Marcus’s lovely, rhythmic sentences and wise insights about family, self, and masculinity. And it ends as an experimental deluge of vague language signifying everything and nothing, story-length prose poems as gorgeously written as they are hollow. Just when I thought I was madly in love with this collection, the stories began slipping into the kind of self-conscious, Freudian, existential, cold, nebulous muck that sinks so many of Marcus’s protagonists.
The opening story, “What Have You Done?,” is particularly strong, a portrait of the petty regression that overtakes when, as adults, we return home to visit family. Paul was an unhappy, demanding, bully of a kid, and his family in Cleveland learned to fear his tantrums. Now, with them for a week after a 10-year absence, he has changed, but their expectations of him haven’t. It’s painful to watch, as he tries, fails, and tries again to be himself, while they hold onto “a narrative of Paul that he could never, no matter what, revise.”
The story stakes out Marcus’s best territory: the beautifully and intimately rendered claustrophobic space where our hard-won selves battle a world of others who want to compromise us. He can turn a man’s spiral into despair and loneliness into a fascinating journey, buoying it with blackly comic overtones. Fleming, the burnt-out writer in “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” is grudgingly teaching a seminar on a cruise ship, taking breaks to “replenish his stores of fraudulence for the next round. How else could he summon his artillery of deceit without some pretty serious alone time?” Fleming’s self-protective instincts are fierce, wry, and, ultimately, self-sabotaging.
At the other end of the spectrum in “Leaving the Sea” are the stories in the second half, which are so intentionally and expertly abstruse that you feel as if you’re drowning in symbols. They are doggedly nonspecific, set, like Marcus’s novel “The Flame Alphabet” (2012), in a dystopian near future where words have disappeared, or where love has become a scientific endeavor, or where offices are brave new worlds and bosses are mysterious envoys of totalitarian regimes. The effects of a radically changed universe are often alluded to, but the facts of that universe remain obscured.
The men in these deeply interior pieces are both primitive and infantile in their perceptions. Marcus endows them with a minimalist sensibility — it reminded me, at times, of the early Talking Heads, with David Byrne singing with naïve simplicity about buildings and food. “In daylight,” Marcus writes in “First Love,” “she wore motion-limiting weights called shoes.” In “Origins of the Family,” he writes: “When they discuss children they are trying to discover if they can create a new set of bones together” and “The police ride velvet-covered bone-cages called horses.”
There’s something so seductive about Marcus’ imagination and flow of language, as abstract as it can be. He has a loyal following of readers who have embraced his bold, hyperfluent vision. It’s a distant relative to Virginia Woolf’s style in “The Waves,” a wash of abstract beauty. And in those stories where he harnesses his diction to a semblance of reality, or even the slightest of story arcs, the result is uniquely appealing. “Watching Mysteries With My Mother,” for example, has the narrator merging his obsessive thoughts about death, and his anticipatory guilt about his mother’s inevitable end, with her passion for figuring out PBS mystery series. The story has nothing resembling a conventional plot, but the intense worries and wonderings of the speaker are sharp and clear.
But finally, the book feels indulgent and emotionally monotonous. In a pair of humor pieces structured as question-and-answer sessions with scientists, Marcus ridicules the careful, overly theoretical tendencies of academic discourse. “I do question the term limits of parents,” one of them says. I could easily imagine Marcus writing a similar parody of his own stylistic excesses, which go from impressive to exhausting much too quickly.