Ben Marcus: Leaving the Sea

Ben Marcus first came to my (largely baffled) attention with his debut book, The Age of Wire and String. I was going to call it ‘a collection of stories’, but that doesn’t really sum up short pieces of prose like this, titled ‘Intercourse with Resuscitated Wife’:

Intercourse with resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery. Electricity mourns the absence of the energy form (wife) within the household’s walls by stalling its flow to the outlets. As such, an improvised friction needs to take the place of electricity, to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels. This is achieved with the dead wife. She must be found, revived, and then penetrated until heat fills the room, until the toaster is shooting bread onto the floor, until she is smiling beneath you with black teeth and grabbing your bottom. Then the vacuum rides by and no one is pushing it, it is on full steam. Days flip past in chunks of fake light, and the intercourse is placed in the back of the mind. But it is always there, that moving into a static-ridden corpse that once spoke familiar messages in the morning when the sun was new.

What to make of this? It’s funny. It’s compact – compressed, even. It makes you think. It’s even slightly moving at the end. Not bad in 160 words. But it’s difficult to say what it really means, if anything – not that that should be a bar to its success on its own terms. And the reason I chose this one as an example is because it’s the first in the book, one of the more straightforward pieces, and I never got very far with The Age of Wire and String. Even though I more or less liked the ones I did read. Jonathan Gibbs, an astute critic, describes it as “nonsense, but highly-charged, persuasive nonsense,” while one reviewer on Amazon, a better reader than I, made enough sense of it to say that the pieces “seem to denote some horrible family tragedy, possibly revolving around the narrator’s brother, Jason Marcus.”

I mention all this not just by way of background but because it’s interesting to see where Marcus has gone from there. His next book published in the UK was the novel The Flame Alphabet, and now we have another collection of … I think we can definitely call them stories this time.

Ben Marcus: Leaving the Sea (cover design by Peter Mendelsund)

Leaving the Sea is one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year, not just for its content but also for what it tells us about the author’s body of work and his progress as a writer. The stories are grouped, and the first four are traditional narratives – well, fairly. They have a New Yorker-ish air to them – three were published there – and to me recalled the likes of Lorrie Moore and George Saunders. They have Moore’s self-analytical protagonists, and Saunders’s passive-aggressive dialogue and men unhappy in their own skin. Paul in ‘What Have You Done?’ has “a belly that spilled around to his lower back. A second belly in the rear, which might be why he ate so much. Two mouths to feed.” Fleming in ‘I Can Say Many Nice Things’ has a similar problem. “Even in private, he had cut down on the nudity. These days the shame had followed him indoors.” In ‘The Dark Arts’, Julian, wasted with terminal illness, has the opposite problem. “You’d need more than clothing to hide a body like his. You’d need a shovel, a tarp.” Their physical failings reflect, or represent, something deeper. This is a past guilt, something sexual and unsavoury, for Paul in ‘What Have You Done?’ (the title resounds in our head as we look at Paul). He measures all women, even his mother, by their appearance. The story is set at a family reunion where Paul is trying to rehabilitate himself, but finds himself unable to talk to his family about his new life, about his wife and child. (“These people would have to die for Paul to be free. Which was bullshit, he knew. It was Paul who would have to die.”) This rings true: as children we develop and nurture the parts of our lives that cannot be seen by our families, the people who until then have known us best. (From the other side, parents first experience this when their child comes home from school and swears they can’t remember anything about their day.) Paul’s family knows him best and worst, and the story is not disrupted or spoiled by never finding out what it is that he did, just as in ‘The Dark Arts’ we don’t need to know precisely what is wrong with Julian. This coyness is a deliberate policy on Marcus’s part. In a recent interview, he spoke of how he had

written versions of all of these stories with a little more information. A little more background. And I often think, ‘OK, this answers a question,’ but in answering that question, some kind of potency is lost. When I give information, I feel like I’m killing a story. I worry about the inertia you can feel if you explain.

Shades here of Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child. “Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided and over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.” Marcus is right – the power of these stories comes from the tension between knowing and not knowing, the things the reader’s mind adds to fill the gaps that Marcus leaves. That’s on top of the more common form of knowing/not knowing in fiction, of wondering what will happen next as the story is carefully unreeled. This is particularly strong in ‘Rollingwood’, the fourth of the ‘traditional’ stories here, though to describe it as such is a stretch. We are in a slightly off-kilter world, where Mather, the divorced father of a sick boy, has to battle his child’s brutal treatment equipment that seems more medieval than medical; his feckless ex, who abandons the boy to Mather’s care for weeks at a time (“fatherhood has somehow become about helping the boy not love his mother too painfully”); and his obstructive colleagues, who conspire to make him feel as though he is fading from reality. Putting a sick child in danger is a pretty handy emotional shortcut for a writer, but it works here because the reader is simultaneously distracted by the strangeness surrounding it. It makes for one of the best pieces in the collection.

But then I liked all these first four stories, which together take up not much less than half the book. Their straightforwardness – in comparison to The Age of Wire and String – means they enter brain directly, all the more potently to worry at the reader once they’re in there. As well as these, there are what I think of as transitional pieces, like ‘Watching Mysteries With My Mother’ and ‘The Loyalty Protocol’, which are still recognisably stories, but branch out into stranger places. The first of these is a twenty-page-long looping thought by a man prone to obsessional worrying, who swoops and circles around the idea of his mother’s imminent death, trying to distract himself from it but unable to look away. He starts by wondering if she can beat the odds of death (“Odds are odds, and they should never be beaten. If they are, then the odds are incorrect and should be changed”), and digresses and diverts into related subjects (“Screaming requires a terrific summoning of muscle. It scares me to think that one day I will be too weak to scream when I most need to scream”) and back again. ‘The Loyalty Protocol’ sets us down in a neighbourhood which is carrying out a drill for an unspecified disaster. A man Edward, who often seems very like Marcus’s earlier male characters (“He thought of himself as deeply empathic – if mainly toward himself”, and is prone to “play[ing] out futures with women he’d never speak to”), is tested by the authorities who instruct him to leave his parents behind at the next drill – which may not be a drill but the real thing, not that Edward knows what that is. Here, like an extrapolation of ‘Rollingwood’, the effect is to make the emotional heart of the story stand out more starkly in an unknowable setting. Similarly, in ‘Watching Mysteries With My Mother’, there is an unexpectedly affecting tug when the narrator imagines how he would respond if someone asked him what he was doing at the time of his mother’s death:

Perhaps this man or woman would be someone with whom I would grow close, even though I would be an older person by then with little to offer in terms of romantic manoeuvres. We’d pose each other questions on couches, chairs, park benches, beds, in cars and on buses and sometimes walking through fields, or so I imagine, seeking to overcome each other’s defences, hoping that personal questions, asked and answered, would come, over time, to pass for intimacy, but wondering, sometimes, if that’s even how it’s done, and if that doesn’t seem too strenuous a method of getting someone to finally love you.

This reflexive style could pall pretty quickly for many readers, but it provides a bridge to the remaining stories in the book, which are generally shorter and definitely much stranger (strangers; literary aliens). What is most curious is not just their content but the fact that, although they appear later here, they were the earliest stories. The stories I have already discussed – twenty to thirty pages long, narrative in form, recognisable but distinctive – were first published in magazines between 2011 and 2013. The remainder are (mostly) earlier, some dating back as far as 2000, that is, a few years after The Age of Wire and String. And they are tricky, troubling, even obscure. These stories require the reader to think hard while reading them just to understand what each sentence is saying. For that reason, they are shorter: it would be impossible to keep this sort of thing up for two dozen pages: probably for the writer, and certainly for the reader. ‘First Love’ feels long at eight pages; ‘Fear of the Morning’ about right at four. What sort of thing are we talking about? Things that are very similar in tone and feel to The Age of Wire and String, though the most difficult stories in Leaving the Sea are, to me, still Ulysses to Wire and String‘s Finnegans Wake. They can seem like a slightly corny Martian school of poetry, where the narrator describes a world or situation to the reader, but with as much blurring as clarification.

So in ‘First Love’, a “mistake tunnel” is a mouth (ho hum), an orgasm is a “seizure” (well!), and when a seizure happens “the sun was briefly refuted and I achieved a dark area” (better; funny). Also, “having a secret means: I have swallowed part of you and that is why you feel incomplete.” So we are in a world where words hold not so much different meanings as additional meanings, and the struggle to understand human emotions is given freshness by having us struggle to understand the language. Making it strange makes it new. In ‘Fear the Morning’, Marcus treads close to silliness but balances it with a bracing, Bartlebyesque darkness, in a four-page account of the life of a man who spreads lotion on his body through a hole in his coat while he walks, and who aims to “perfect this skill until he had arranged for a situation that would go on for as long as he wanted it to, in which absolutely nothing occurred.” Then he ends a borderline beautiful passage with a line (“The people would be made of bark”) that breaks the spell, conjures whimsy, and left me wondering whether Marcus was deliberately deadening his own effects, as a sort of anti-joke – or whether he was just making it up as he went along. But these stories are not nonsense: they just don’t follow the usual path. There is a sadness running through them that seems pretty well exemplified by the title story, which suggests that human evolution was, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, a bad move which has made a lot of people very angry: the narrator reflects on the possibilities that might have been “if I were something better that had never tried to leave the sea.” Another of the earlier stories, ‘On Not Growing Up’, takes the form of a Q&A (“—How long have you been a child? —Seventy-one years”) that satirises the notion that childhood impulses and qualities are to be prized and preserved (“Is a tantrum disruptive? Or does it point to an emotional tunnel we’re afraid of entering?”), while emphasising once more the merits of not knowing.

These stories reminded me that Ben Marcus, along with his comment above about withholding information from stories, also said this in the same interview:

I spent years being too elliptical. Not on purpose. And I was always shocked when people would say that, and I would think, what are you talking about? It’s the most lucid thing that’s ever been written! No. No one understands you.

This, presumably, refers to The Age of Wire and String, and we might conclude that these stories chart Marcus’s development from there to here. He has become more mainstream, cutting out the cutting out, striking a balance better. But the earlier stories, the short and strange ones, definitely have a force of their own. They recalled a couple of quotes which I will end this piece with – this piece which has gone on far too long to say so little (but how to describe something you struggle to hold in your head?). The first is Flannery O’Connor:

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one.

The other is Beckett on Joyce:

His writing is not about something: it is that something itself.


  1. i’ve been thinking about Ben Marcus, without having read a word he’s written beyond his book titles, for a long time. i’m so glad you wrote this review.

  2. I have his first, though it’s not yet that near the top of the to be read pile. It’s interesting to see he’s voyaging from the experimental to the more New Yorker-esque. Usually the path goes the other way, well, usually the path steers clear of the experimental entirely.

    It does feel perhaps that you’re still grappling with this one. That’s probably a good thing, perhaps so anyway. Is it in this case?

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