Leaving the Sea, by Ben Marcus, Granta RRP£16.99/Knopf RRP$25.95, 288 pages
If you’re looking for a heartwarming book that promises saccharine, weepy enjoyment – something that will make you laugh, cry and pump your fist at the resilience of the human spirit – then you should join my mother’s book club. You should definitely not consider Ben Marcus’s new short story collection, Leaving the Sea. If, however, you are looking for a relentlessly sardonic and cynical read that is ambitiously experimental in style, look nowhere else.
Indeed, over the past few years, Marcus has established himself as one of contemporary American fiction’s foremost practitioners of dark, difficult writing. His work so far – two novels and now this new collection of stories – is marked by a penchant for subverting the conventions of character, setting and storytelling, matched with an intense interest in the bendability of language. In his most recent novel The Flame Alphabet (2012), for instance, the speech of children suddenly develops a lethal effect on their parents, who must balance their natural desire to care for their little ones against their natural desire to avoid certain death. The moral situation of the novel is just as demanding as its formal and linguistic structures – an integration that makes for the sort of discomfiting fascination synonymous with reading Marcus.
The stories in Leaving the Sea reach and even surpass the heights of bleakness that Marcus has achieved in his earlier books. Several of them feature middle-aged men stuck in failure, whether in their relationships with parents, partners and young children, or in their working lives. Efforts to break free only worsen these dismal situations. Take the collection’s opening story, “What Have You Done?”, which concerns a mediocre son’s temporary return to visit his parents and sister in Cleveland. Conscious of his history of disappointing his loved ones, he can’t help but want to tell them about his first actual success at life – the wife and child and good job he’s kept secret from them all. Of course, no one believes him, which only intensifies his disaffection with both himself and his family.
Disaffection gives way to despairing laughter, for both characters and readers, in subsequent stories, whether the claustrophobic tension of a scornful writer leading a Creative Writing seminar on a luxury cruise ship, or a pathologically self-involved man from New Jersey travelling through Europe in search of cures to his unknown malaise. The man spends most of his time heaping scorn on Europeans who don’t understand his extreme sarcasm, and on his fellow countrymen when he sees them ruining the Old World scenery: “Occasionally an American or two spoiled the tasteful palette with vacation colors, releasing high-strung moods as if by megaphone: I have arrived in your historic city and I am the happiest person you will ever know! Let me rub my joy on you! . . . No one disliked American tourists more than their own kind.”
Leaving the Sea would be a very good work of conventional literary fiction if it simply offered such smart and tart observations. Yet Marcus has little interest in conventions, except to undermine them: he often puts his characters in situations that are almost unbearable to witness, as in “Rollingwood”, where an embittered single father deals with a sick toddler and looming job loss, both laid out in excruciating detail; or in a dystopic tale such as “The Loyalty Protocol”, where another embittered young man tries to help his unwilling parents in the midst of an emergency evacuation of their city under mysterious but highly bureaucratised circumstances. Meanwhile, the middle section of the collection showcases Marcus’s skill and interest in playing with language and storytelling structures. Alas, the skill is greater than the interest it generates: these stories read too much like the result of a writer too wrapped up in his own curiosity about the experimental possibilities of writing, whether on the level of a whole story, a monologue, a dialogue, a paragraph, even a sentence. “I could not sleep until I had labored through a regular lust application performed with motion, gesture, and languageflower,” begins a story titled “First Love”.
To dismiss such passages is to miss Marcus’ motivating ambition, which, as with writers before him such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Raymond Queneau and John Barth, is to force us into fresh and often fraught encounters with language and event. A certain type of young, unformed reader will be all too easily seduced by Marcus’s serious intent to push the boundaries of linguistics and narrative; for others, these efforts may ultimately come across as self-involved and self-important.
That said, the collection’s closing story, “The Moors”, is more than worth the uneven reading experience that precedes it. “At work today,” the story begins, “Thomas the Dead, as he had privately named himself, made a grave miscalculation by using baby talk with a colleague.” The rest of the story reveals all the many blackly funny moments that lead up to this very bad idea. And just when you finish marvelling at the author’s skill in bringing together the absurd and the banal, and forming sentence after sentence with scouring insight and linguistic force, you’re stopped short by a shocking conclusion that makes you want to tell everyone you know – book clubs included – to go and read Ben Marcus.
Randy Boyagoda is author of ‘Beggar’s Feast’ (Viking/Pintail)