Ben Marcus is a man who prefers not to put things too easily. Since his first book was published almost twenty years ago—The Age of Wire and String, a collection of stories that could have also been prose poems or even guides to some other plane—Marcus has carved a career out of writing complex, formally inventive fictions that seem to confuse just as many readers as they impress. In 2005, after Harper’s published an essay in which Marcus defended difficult and experimental fiction from the likes of Jonathan Franzen and the Atlantic Monthly’s B.R. Myers, Marcus became an unofficial spokesperson—some might even say a symbol—for writing that was innovative, demanding, and different from the mainstream. “If you happen to be interested in the possibilities of language,” Marcus wrote, “if you appreciate the artistic achievements of others but still dream for yourself, however foolishly, that new arrangements are possible, new styles, new concoctions of language that might set off a series of delicious mental explosions—if you believe any of this, and worse, if you try to practice it, you are an elitist. You hate your audience, you hate the literary industry, and you probably hate yourself. You stand not with the people, but in a quiet dark hole, shouting to no one.”
This said, many were surprised when, in 2012, Marcus came out with his most accessible work to date, The Flame Alphabet. Adhering mostly to the rules of linear narrative, complete with a cast of characters and a suspenseful plot, it marked a stylistic shift away from his earlier books. Marcus’s usual themes (family, language, metaphor) are still present, as is the particular strangeness of his world, but both the fierce experimental wordplay and the emphasis on an unconventional structure were tamped down. So with the release of his latest story collection, Leaving the Sea (Knopf, 271 pages), a question lingering among his fans was, will Marcus continue down this path, or will he return to his more experimental roots? The answer, as it turns out, is, Yes.
Astute followers of Marcus will have already known this, since a majority of the fifteen stories included in Leaving the Sea have been showing up in magazines and literary journals, in one form or another, since at least early 2000. Two of them (“The Moors” and “The Father Costume”) have even appeared as their own books. This is telling: the range Marcus exhibits throughout the collection bears direct witness to the last decade of his writing’s development.
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The book—divided into six sections that are ordered, loosely, into a reverse chronology—begins with a quartet of his latest, and therefore most accessible, stories. “What Have You Done?” is about Paul, a frustrated, embittered, overweight man, who comes home to Cleveland to visit a family he’s so estranged from, so angry and distrustful at, that he spends his entire time second-guessing their every action, convinced that they hate him just as much as he hates them. What is the source of such animosity? Why does this dark current run through his life? Marcus prefers not to answer, instead allowing the mystery to course through the story until we, too, feel Paul’s dread.
Marcus is a master at employing this kind of character—disaffected and angry, but ultimately helpless outside their own heads—toward very different ends. In what might be the collection’s most amusing story, “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” a man boards a cruise ship to teach a creative writing course, where his students prove to be underwhelming:
“A woman named Shay started the critique. She shrugged, said she had trouble believing it, and then paused, failing to elaborate.
“That did rather sum things up, Fleming thought. Sort of a brave piece of thinking. Maybe true of almost everything created ever: paintings, books, houses, bridges, certain people. None of them are finally believable, when you really think about it. But, well, there they were.”
One can practically feel Marcus’s humor—sharp, black, barbed—bleeding through his prose.
More stories in this uncomfortable realist mode follow, and then, by the book’s second section (and beyond), we begin to enter into more familiar Marcus territory. There is a pair of stories framed as faux academic dialogues between leaders of bizarre cults, bringing to mind David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.” There is another about a man watching television with his mother, the whole time obsessing over the existential, as well as the eminently practical, questions that surround her eventual death (“If I want my mother to survive, as I continue to say that I do, so she is not discovered dead in her apartment, should I not hire a companion for her?”). Then, in “The Loyalty Protocol,” yet another iteration of the helpless, ineffectual man struggles against the indifferences of the world around him while society takes precautions against some unknown, but seemingly imminent, threat. In each of these, Marcus shrouds his narratives in states of anxiety, all the while stubbornly refusing to answer questions of why or what.
Some readers will find these stories confounding, both for their lack of resolution and for the persistent bleakness that continues to cut through them. Unfortunately, anyone expecting a break from the dystopic or dark will be disappointed by the more experimental pieces that appear later on. “The Father Costume,” for example, describes a world in which language takes the form of fabric, and sounds are barked into a “stippled leather box.” This is typical Marcus, inventing phrases such as, “Sadness could be stored in an area, sealed in a small spot of water. Water could be the costume for what my brother felt.” Writing like this can be refreshing as it stretches into the imaginative boundaries of language, butting right up against our own incredulity, but even it starts to wither under the weight of the collection’s bitter mood. By the time I had reached the title story, a deafening sentence that sprawls out over six pages of dense text, I felt too exhausted by the effort to go on.
There is more that is said (and much more left unsaid), and devotees of Marcus will be delighted by the strange turns and linguistic games that occur as Leaving the Sea ends. Or maybe they won’t. This is the thing with Ben Marcus’s work, why he remains such a vital if often divisive figure in literature twenty years into his career: through a process of continual invention, through an uncompromising and utterly stalwart belief that writing is meant to be a statement of originality and a refutation of banality, Marcus creates a world that is his, and unmistakably his, even if (or perhaps especially if) it discomforts us until we squirm. He is unafraid to be a difficult writer who writes difficult, singular stories that do not attempt to be kind. This is admirable, I would argue, and taken individually, or in small sets, these stories are admirable, too. But in presenting them as a collection, where each grim narrative soon bleeds into the next, Marcus risks something much greater than mere difficulty: he risks being a bore.