Having immersed myself in Ben Marcus’s fiction for awhile, it dawned on me: every fiction writer creates their own world, ready made. Marcus’s new story collection Leaving the Sea is wide ranging, if variable and perhaps uneven because of the terrain it covers, from the experimental, to the more traditional narrative with a gloss of dystopia—which for being distilled and strained through the Marcus language machine, are still somehow, experimental. Marcus is bold for being an experimental writer with the full endorsement and backing of the mainstream publishing venues. However, here, the variety suggests that some of the approaches aren’t overwhelmingly successful. The most successful stories rely on trusty narrative hooks (“The Loyalty Protocol”), and a sense of scene building, ultimately driven by an ensemble of characters at odds to the protagonist. Often these stories rely on a kind of extreme antagonism between family members, frequently between a father and son. In this way, Marcus mines familial territory with the anomic detachment and numbness of Kafka, and the barely contained rage of a Beckett figure forced into society under duress.
Marcus has roughly three periods: early (enigmatic), middle (slightly less enigmatic) and late (more familiar, if still shrouded in occasional cryptic trappings), corresponding roughly to his three previous books. This collection is almost evenly spread over these three periods. Marcus, besides making this jump from his earlier, often cryptic narrative making, into a more straightforward, perhaps accessible story telling in recent stories, establishes himself as firmly rooted in the modernist tradition. This is to see such a position as a duty to literary history—and the study of it—and perhaps a responsibility, a la David Foster Wallace.
Attention can lag in a few of these stories, in particular “Watching Mysteries with My Mother”. This story might suffer the diagnosis Marcus made himself in “On the Lyric Essay”, a 2003 piece in The Believer, when he talks about “[…] the implied tedium of fiction not driven by story, particularly if a reader is expecting one. ” Is it then still a story? What set this story up for this was the frequent refrains, which felt like code words for “now the author is going to reintroduce the repetitive phrase,” while it didn’t feel as if the story was progressing. The story’s agenda did not meet the reader’s prerogative.
Where he doesn’t use this language toward estrangement, as he does in the early stories, he provides alienating scenarios, particularly as a means of buttressing the dystopia. Where successful, I sensed something new for Marcus was blossoming on the page, as in “The Loyalty Protocol”. The beauty, and fascination for me, of Marcus’s writing, tends to come with seeing his meticulousness with the possibilities in the language. Or, as I said of Notable American Women (here, in a review of The Flame Alphabet), Marcus has a knack for “remarkable description [which] leads the reader to recognition and surprise from which irony elicits hilarity.” One of the earliest published of the stories in Leaving the Sea, “First Love”, feels as if it might have come as a revelation between The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women. In this story, there’s a sense that the use of language as applied to a physical activity described in the story, is fresh, as if being discovered by the author. Marcus has so often reapplied this approach, however, that in the later stories the effect can feel stale and overworked. That’s why the newest stories, though traditional in narrative form—even, perhaps, conventional—though a departure from his signature style, are a welcome and interesting development. These are stories not of the usual world, but one a few degrees off kilter in an alternative existence.