Leaving the Sea

By Ben Marcus

The stories in Leaving the Sea range a great deal in terms of style, from a fairly realistic portrayal of intergenerational domestic conflict to a ribbon of metafiction consisting of a single run-on-and-on sentence. Underlying all the diversity, however, is a consistent set of anxieties surrounding the alienated figure of the contemporary middle-aged American male. What Ben Marcus offers is a sort of literary shock treatment for these shut-ins.

In the beginning, and the stories start out more-or-less normal and progressively get stranger, our protagonists seem like familiar types. They are men of a certain age, fighting losing battles against weight gain and hair loss. As one of the species recognizes, such men are the “cattle in our lives we hardly ever see.” They are lonely, depressed, and even a little angry. Nobody seems to care about them or their problems, and everyone around them is having more fun. Why, they’re even having sex!

As we leave recognizably real situations and settings behind, the conflict between the hero and his social environment becomes more sharply defined. Empathy is dead. Other people are presented as being without pity or understanding, mere functionaries in mindless and at times vicious bureaucracies. Even the nuclear family has become an unfeeling battleground of separate states. The world is experienced as something “too complex to know and far too terrible to join.”

The character of Julian in the story “The Dark Arts” is representative. We meet up with him in Germany, where he is a supposed to be receiving a medical treatment. He doesn’t speak the language and his girlfriend has abandoned him. His mother is dead and his father seems to hold him in contempt. Even his own body has turned against him: his immune system has broken down and now he is allergic to himself.

“And on the eighth day,” he imagines, “God made his creatures so lonely they wept.” All of this makes him mad.

Then things get weird. Marcus is probably best known as a standard bearer for today’s experimental fiction, and in the later pieces here a final alienation takes place between the solitary hero and language. We might just still be in our own time and place, but the names for everything have changed, allowing Marcus to invent his own poetic brand of semi-nonsense prose. This radical revitilization of the language is seen as something necessary, a return to a childish or even womb-like state when our words “had yet to wither.”

Most of the time he pulls it off. There is a loquacious energy and inventiveness at work and at play in these stories that carries things along even when we travel to what one character admits is a place “deeply outside any likely reality.” While the connection between language and the world is stretched, it never loses its tether entirely.

But how could it? We are born into language and float about in it all our lives. It is the social amniotic sea we never abandon. In addition, it provides the medium of exchange for the empathy these isolated, lonely people are in such desperate need of. Which, in turn, may be why in the stories that develop the theme of a “new language” furthest, like “First Love” and “Origins of the Family,” the emphasis is on imagining new words for body parts and ways of connecting and communicating with others.

So we never really leave the sea, despite the fact that our culture has become a degraded ecosystem, like those Florida beaches dead of life for miles offshore. Marcus’s work won’t be for everyone because alienation isn’t just his theme but his technique as well. You sometimes have to kick your legs pretty hard just to keep your head above water. But for those tired of wilted language and the dead ends of more conventional fiction it provides a welcome and therapeutic intervention.

Review first published in the Toronto Star January 12, 2014.

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