In the story that opens Leaving the Sea, two men begin conversing at a family party. Rick, the more straight-laced of the two, turns to his brother-in-law and says: "I love family."
The second man, Paul, replies by saying: "Oh, hey, did someone get hurt tonight?" Rick looks worried. Then Paul adds to the confusion by claiming to have seen a stretcher go into the hotel. The way this sentence is structured ensures that the reader mentally prepares for some awful event. But it never materializes. The author never mentions this incident again.
Of the 15 stories contained in this book, many have similar moments like this. In "The Loyalty Protocol," we meet Edward, a member of a local cult. The purpose of the cult is not revealed in detail, while the language is obfuscating and amorphous. In the final scene of the story, we witness a man waving goodbye to his father through a bus window. We don't find out whether the father will meet his death or simply continue up the highway to safety. But there is an unsettling undertone that says: Something bad is going to happen.
I found this element of Ben Marcus' storytelling utterly compelling. What's not said, or what's left out, implies infinite possibilities after almost every sentence, creating a constant state of anxiety in the text.
Apart from a few tales that indulge in social realism, Marcus is in experimental mode for the duration of this book — although I'm sure he would hate that term when applied to his own work.
In "On Not Growing Up" — written in the form of an interview — we meet a 71-year-old man who has spent his life behaving as an infant, promoting a lifestyle called "child-driven power reversals"; in "Origins of the Family," we enter into a dystopian world where young people are locked away in rooms to absorb the sound of the police force, who come banging on the doors of family homes every night. In "The Father Costume," words are tested to their limits when the narrator tells us: "There is a portion of time that my own language cannot reach."
As the book progresses, Marcus tears up the rule book completely. And it works beautifully. Words are rearranged on the page and meanings are deconstructed. The world we have entered into, Marcus explains, is "dreamlike, with artificial colors."
Ben Marcus' previous novel was The Flame Alphabet.
After finishing this book I wondered if perhaps a single leitmotif connects each story together in a cohesive way, but I failed to come up with a definitive answer. I don't think it matters, though, since Marcus appears to be the kind of writer who offers different possibilities of interpretation to every reader.
Amid this postmodern chaos, some themes do emerge: Marcus grapples with the idea that the family unit in American society has deteriorated considerably over the last number of decades. Anxiety, paranoia and the fear of death also crop up in nearly every page.
If you enjoy writers like Samuel Beckett, Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, who refuse to put language in a neat little box where conventional rules apply, then I'm sure you will love this collection. Marcus has gone to great lengths to write books for those who love the challenge of a mouthful of language, and the way it can encapsulate the world in ways we previously presumed weren't possible.
In a famously feisty 2005 essay, Marcus started a debate with a fellow American man of letters, Jonathan Franzen, about the value of literature in our culture. The essay created two categories, the first being a sentimental place where stories simply pull at our heartstrings and make us all warm and fuzzy inside, and the second attempting to travel deep down into the coalface of the ontological conundrum that some call the human condition.
Marcus proudly places his own writing in the latter category. If this debate arises again, I'm certain that this outstanding collection of stories will help Ben Marcus win that argument with ease.
J.P. O'Malley is a freelance journalist based in London. His work has appeared in The Spectator, The Economist, The Daily Beast, New African, The Sunday Times and many others.