The San Francisco Chronicle
January 10, 2014
To read Ben Marcus, you need not only a dark sense of humor but a penchant for experimental language: Nearly every major literary magazine understands that, as does every one of Marcus’ graduate students at Columbia, which shows that at least two major slices of the literary pie stand behind his vision for high modernist fiction. Expressionistic, surreal and morbid, Marcus has become a giant in the world of innovative, demanding prose.
“Leaving the Sea” is Marcus’ first story collection since his 1995 book “The Age of Wire and String,” but despite the time gap, he never stopped working on stories, and they never stopped being published – three from this collection appeared in the New Yorker alone. He also never ceased being a humbling writer, one who demands work from his readers, both of a cognitive and an emotional nature.
In 2012, his third novel, “The Flame Alphabet,” was the first of his volumes to read like an actual novel: linear and narrative, but no less laborious for it. As Marcus said in an interview with Bomb Magazine, “I try to stress how important it is, when you’re asking for the attention of a reader, that you’re doing the most intense, interesting, compelling, fascinating thing that you could possibly do.”
This is reminiscent of Dave Eggers’ foreword to David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest,” in which Eggers warns the reader that Wallace’s book is not “always a barrel of monkeys. … It demands your full attention. It can’t be read at a crowded cafe, or with a child on one’s lap.”
Initially, “Leaving the Sea” confused and irritated me. Why so depressing, why so trying, why so what Marcus and Jonathan Franzen have been arguing about: so unreadable? Until I realized, that’s kind of the point. Rather than give his readers an emotional break, Marcus’ breathing room is found in his more linear, traditional stories that scatter “Leaving the Sea” more than any of his other works.
In “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” the narrator Fleming is a creative-writing professor on a ship – one of those Semester at Sea programs in which the draw is traveling the world but which actually involve “learning” in a seesawing, windowless conference room. Fleming spends his time dodging his students both above and below deck – “He needed a different body to wear around when he wasn’t in the workshop. Or, at the very least, a T-shirt that read: I’M OFF THE CLOCK, BITCHES!” – including one particularly inappropriate student named Britt who is bent on seducing him.
At one point, the story comes off as unbelievable (this hot teenager is really going to verbally suggest sadomasochistic foreplay to her sad, dumpy teacher?), but to call the story unbelievable is to quote one of Fleming’s workshop students who reverts to saying everything read in class is “unbelievable,” to which Fleming sarcastically notes: “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.”
In “Rollingwood,” a newly separated man named Mathers attempts to take care of his small son, Alan, “a name not for a baby but for a grown man,” who has an asthma problem so severe he has to be hooked up to a humidifier tank every four hours. The boy’s mother and her new boyfriend leave for the week without warning and with no attempts at helping set up child care. Mathers is forced to bring Alan to work, an office where the nursery closes inexplicably and Mathers has to fight the temps for his desk space.
Each sentence is so chillingly ominous that it is hard to imagine how the narrator won’t crack under the pressure: “Mather stands up and swings him around and the boy laughs, but the laugh turns into a whimper, and Mather isn’t sure if the boy is frightened or happy.”
One of the strongest stories is “First Love,” set in a strange, language-centric world in which words ditch their original meanings for metaphor. “This was when changes in the air were known as weather, when low-flying bullets were still called friends, and periods of suffering were broken up into intervals called days.” The narrator describes orgasming as having a seizure and loving someone as “coveting the hoard they might be storing in their bodies. While they sleep we reach at their hoard with our hands, an excavation better known as caressing.”
“Leaving the Sea” is darkly funny, psychologically provocative and playful. But some of the stories have the downfall of trying a little too hard, or just getting a little too far out there, and in their failure do the exact thing Marcus stresses not to do: bore the reader. The collection might be considered by some as too cold and depressing to read, but as Marcus has said, “I just tried a different angle at emotion.”
I say bring it on. This interesting, horrifying thing we call life is something that deserves many angles, and Marcus nails them.
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