Like Donald Antrim, Ben Marcus is an American writer of experimental fiction published in the UK by Granta. With three novels behind him, most recently The Flame Alphabet (in which children’s language becomes toxic to adults), Leaving the Sea is his first substantial collection of short stories, the oldest of which was published as long ago as 2000. It is split into six sections with the more conventional stories separated from the more experimental until, it might be argued, both forms coincide in the final story, ‘The Moors’.
Almost all Marcus’ characters suffer from an isolation that is evidenced in broken or troubled relationships. In the opening story, ‘What Have You Done?,’ Paul returns to his family home after a lengthy absence. Though we do not discover what he has done, it has clearly put such pressure on his relationship with his parents and sister that they no longer trust anything he says, unwilling to accept, though they deny this, his assertion that he is married with a child:
“Paul determined that if anyone asked him, in the years to come, he’d say that if you’ve ever scared someone, even accidentally or as a joke, that person will flinch when he sees you.”
In ‘I Can Say Many Nice Things’, Fleming, a writer teaching creative writing on a cruise ship, finds communication with his wife strained:
“’Okay,’ she said, in the classic way she ended her phone calls. As in, Okay, I’ve had enough, this is over.”
The missing member of his class (was their disappearance responsible for the head count on the first night?) becomes someone to emulate:
“This was the perfect place to miss out on the next head count, should it come. No one would find him here…”
Illness is also a recurrent feature. Julian, in ‘The Dark Arts’, is suffering from an autoimmune disease and has gone to Germany for treatment. His illness seems to have fractured his relationship with his girlfriend, Hayley, and he waits on her arrival each day with less and less hope:
“She would fail to appear today, no doubt, as she had failed to appear every day for the last two weeks.”
When she does arrive he finds himself unable to tell her that he missed her, already too far along a darker path of his own. Illness is also responsible for the eerie opening to ‘Rollingwood’, about a father left to look after his young son, when the boy wakens “wedged under the machine” – a machine to ease his breathing as it turns out. Throughout the story his son is generally referred to as ‘the boy’ suggesting a certain alienation, emphasised by his description:
“…his pink-rimmed eyes, crusty and dry in the corners, and his skin not so much pale as yellow.”
This alienation is demonstrated again and again in stories involving relationships between sons and parents. In ‘Watching Mysteries with My Mother’, the narrator begins, “I don’t think my mother will die today,” and goes on to speculate about death, his mother’s and his own, while discussing the murder mystery programmes his mother loves to watch. Both are fascinated by the mystery of death, though in quite different ways. In possibly my favourite story (though I also loved ‘The Moors’), ‘The Loyalty Protocol’, Edward is reprimanded for taking his parents along to an evacuation drill. The story unfolds with apocalyptic dread, particularly in the light of recent spread of Ebola.
A number of the stories use a more intense form of language. At times this works on the level of Martian poetry, presenting something familiar in an unfamiliar way (“In daylight she wore motion-limiting weights called shoes”) but its ultimate aim is to evoke a reaction beyond meaning. Marcus has said:
“I tend to feel that language is a tool that we really hardly understand. If I put words together in a certain way, suddenly I’m feeling things I haven’t felt before. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the ability of language to do that. To cause so much feeling in us.”
In the final story, ‘The Moors’, Marcus uses this experimental approach to recreate a very ordinary incident to great effect. It’s a tour de force of internalised anxiety as Thomas stands in line behind a co-worker he wants to casually talk to, Marcus stretching a few minutes to over forty pages. It and ‘The Loyalty Protocol’ are among the best short stories I’ve read this year. Like Antrim, Marcus is an exciting, original voice in American fiction.
You can read some of his stories here.