Book Review: Leaving the Sea
by Ben Marcus
The absolute, tyrannical centrality of language – the always-present dangerous parasitism of talk – was the plot-hinge of Ben Marcus’ ingenious 2012 breakthrough book The Flame Alphabet, in which the very speech of children was suddenly physically deadly to adults. It was a powerfully thoughtful book but a defiantly odd one, and its reception was problematic to say the least (“the ideas in The Flame Alphabet are too gnomic to be provocative and the sentiments too hackneyed to rouse emotion” one critic wrote in an icy kvetch of dudgeon).
The book had its partisans, however, and Leaving the Sea, a new collection of short stories from Marcus, is clearly designed to appeal to those partisans – including literally, with a cover by the often-ingenious designer Peter Mendelsund obviously intended to evoke that of The Flame Alphabet. This is always a strange gamble, this apostolic succession of novel to short story collection that the publishing industry has hardened into a locked Prussian two-step. The fifteen items included in Leaving the Sea, ranging from fragments and ragged little experiments to finished works, were placed by Marcus in a variety of publications over the last ten or so years; they were obviously tailored to a wide range of editorial preferences; they pretty openly represent many stages of a writer’s development. And in any case they’re short stories; expecting fans of Marcus’ novel to like them in equal measure is like expecting that patients going to their endocrinologist for a diagnosis will be just as easily satisfied with his John Legend karaoke covers.
Still, it happens all the time, and it has a silver lining: virtually nobody will have scurried from The Denver Quarterly to Electric Literature to Conjunctions, so it’s nice to have all these stories in one convenient place.
They make an eclectic bunch, naturally, since they were written in fifty different moods and moments strung out over the uneven landscape of a rotten decade. It’s momentarily tempting to find grand patterns here where there are none (countless are the reviews that have fallen – or been pushed – into this post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy when dealing with follow-up story collections like this), but one of the characters in this collection speaks the warning truth when he says “I don’t advocate linear apprenticeships.”
Even so, it’s certainly possible to watch a recognizable writer at work and to enjoy the parts of that work he does well. In one of the collection’s best, most intimate stories, “Watching Mysteries with My Mother,” for instance, we get a thought-provoking little digression on the nature of storytelling whose premises were at work in The Flame Alphabet:
I understand, of course, that these mystery stories are invented, but I also understand that the people who invent them are hopelessly bound to what they’ve seen and heard. As much as those people might dream of a kind of pure fabrication, imagining out of whole cloth an utterly new Victorian British society, in which petty domestic crimes take place, they cannot do it. They hew, like it or not, to what has already happened, to what people have already done, what people have already thought.
There are re-workings of earlier work and a handful of somewhat wan stylistic gambles in stories like “Rollingwood” or “On Not Growing Up” or the bleak borderline dystopia of “The Father Costume” with its prose-line bleached white of hope:
The day in question was not much of a day. The sun paused at the horizon until a cluster of hard, black birds burst from the wood. They tore a path into the sky that the sun could fill, and the sun then commenced to stretch the space around it until something passing for daylight occurred. A smarter family would not have been fooled.
That same vivid flair for language is under much better control in the collection’s best story, “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” about, somewhat predictably, a hapless creative writing instructor aboard a cruise ship full of ninnies and hidden talents. And it stands out too in the most memorably unsettling story here, “The Loyalty Protocol,” in which a man is trying to get his aging, quarrelsome parents into a shelter on the eve of an unspecified emergency and runs afoul of an adamant clerk who unspools one of those perfect excoriations that this author seems to relish:
“So you want me to make a mistake, arguably a bigger one, because you did? Let’s say your mistake was an accident, which possibly it was, although I can’t say. I’m guessing you’re not an imbecile, although this is only a guess. You want me to consciously break the rules. You want your error, a stupid error, if you ask me, to beget other errors so we’re both somehow to blame, even though I do not know you and have no responsibility for you? How does that do you a favor? How does that help you? At this point you need to fall on your sword. I don’t understand what’s so hard about that.”
There are missteps here in perhaps sufficient number to have warranted Leaving the Sea as a paperback original rather than a $25 hardcover, but there are strong points too, that equal the strongest bits of The Flame Alphabet and sharpen the appetite for the next novel, tooled clear both of the inaugural literary splash and of this nonlinear apprenticeship. As readers, we can expect great things from Ben Marcus; those who want every seedling of that greatness will want this book.