It is difficult for me to put in words what exactly it is about Ben Marcus’s stories that appeal to me. At first, I want to say it is the weirdness of many of his settings, but that is too vague and liable to be misconstrued. Perhaps it is the family dynamics in several of his tales. Certainly, passages like this one, from the first story of his latest collection, Leaving the Sea, “What Have You Done?”, do contain a sharp, incisive wit:
In the car they didn’t ask him about his trip and he didn’t volunteer. His sister and Rick whispered and cuddled and seemed to try to inseminate each other facially in the backseat while his father steered the car onto the expressway. Alicia and Rick had their whole married lives to exchange fluids and language, but for some reason they’d needed to wait until Paul was there to demonstrate how clandestine and porno they were. They had big secrets – as securely employed adults very well might. Plus they wanted Paul to know that they were vibrantly glistening sexual human beings, even in their late thirties, when most people’s genitals turn dark and small, like shrunken heads, and airport trip be damned, because they couldn’t just turn off their desire at will.
Alone they probably hated each other, Paul thought. Masturbating in separate rooms, then reading in bed together on his-and-hers Kindles. Ignoring the middle-aged fumes steaming under the duvet. Just another marriage burning through its eleventh year. What’s the anniversary stone for eleven years of marriage? A pebble?
As well executed as “What Have You Done?” is in terms of exploring family dynamics and hidden secrets,Leaving the Sea is not a monolithic collection that continuously strums three chords AC/DC-style. There are variations on theme, such as that introduced in the beginning of the second story, “I Can Say Many Nice Things”:
A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exit, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to each other as the coworkers at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members – because ocean life pays better than money! – who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, not a goddamned ship, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.
And yet, when Fleming thought about it, this welcome packet, fucked up though it was, even though he hadn’t read it, most certainly had more readers than he did. More people, for sure, read this welcome packet than had ever read any of his books or stories. This welcome packet commanded a bigger audience, had more draw, appealed to more people, and, the kicker, understood its cherished readers better than he ever would with his sober, sentimental inventions of domestic lives he’d never lived, unless that was too flattering a description of the literary product he willed onto the page with less and less conviction every time he sat down at his laptop.
Certainly there is an air of self-reflection and cynical loathing present, but there also is the sense of a narrator who is blinded to many facets of reality and yet presumes at times to believe that he is self-aware. This is not a cheery tale, but certainly it is a penetrating one that forces its readers to consider certain things about their own attitudes toward life and their perceptions of the people around them.
However, there is still more to Leaving the Sea. In the second section (out of three), the first tale, “On Not Growing Up,” differs in its structure (presented as a fictional Q&A session) and in its inversion of societal beliefs. This line taken from it particularly appeals to me:
My ethics? I’d like to shed the strictures of adulthood and make maturity an optional result of a freely lived human life, not the necessary path to power and success, lorded over by depressed, overweight, unimaginative corpses.
Yet despite how many pithy quotes I can find in Leaving the Sea and no matter how many references to families, dysfunctional relationships, and to failed careers, this collection is not defined solely by Marcus’s excellent treatment of those themes. No, his prose sparkles throughout, almost never ringing a false note. The various characters that people his stories, while they have certain features in common, never feel stale or redundant. Leaving the Sea is one of those rare collections in which readers can detect faint echoes of previous stories, but these echoes do not drown out the interesting things Marcus achieves in each individual tale. This is certainly one of the better story collections that I have read this year. Highly recommended.