Leaving the Sea
Don’t be fooled by the contents page of Ben Marcus’s second collection of short fiction. It advertises 15 separate stories but really only contains one told in multiple permutations – glittering facets of the same dark crystal.
Take the opening story. In What Have You Done?, Paul, overweight, in his late 30s, returns to Cleveland after years of alienation, ostensibly for a family reunion, but in reality testing the waters before revealing to his parents and sister the existence of a wife and child. We witness, from his perspective, the failed state of a middle American, middle-class family, in terms as stark and self-lacerating as anything in contemporary US fiction. Here he is, returning to his childhood bedroom:
All signs of Paul were gone from the room now. Blush-colored paint reddened the walls, the punched-in holes spackled up and painted over ... It looked like a showroom for a home office dedicated to lace crafts and scrapbooking. It was hard not to realise what kind of a kid his parents wished they’d had, and when he thought about the kind of kid it was tempting for Paul to want to track, hunt, and eat the little thing.
But it is metaphorical auto-cannibalism that Paul commits. The external aggression of his youth has turned inward over the years; his consciousness pounds away at itself like a drunk attacking a mirror. Painful, even pitiful to watch, yet a pleasure to read when relayed in Marcus’s prose, rope-walking between demotic and literary registers.
The fat man in middle age, sexually frustrated, emotionally uncoupled, professionally stalled, socially maladroit, furiously lucid in internal monologue yet stammering without: these are the counters rearranged in the stories that follow. Sometimes there is love; more often, its absence. Obligations to parents and children are either traps or escape hatches. Desire for connection with lovers or spouses is a confidence trick played by nature on essentially solitary beings.
As the collection progresses there is a slow peeling away from conventional realism, towards the metafictional. The latter stories are more formally adventurous, more opaque, and finally less satisfying: they resist the reader’s intelligence too successfully. Still, such experiment helps distract a little from the general narrative temper – pessimism so eloquent, so persuasive that it threatens to erase those few, fragile consolations the author shores up against it. AF
Granta, 288pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 29, 2014 as "Leaving the Sea, Ben Marcus ". Subscribe here.