As the critic Wyatt Mason wrote of a difficult work of fiction, “Don’t like it? You don’t have to play.” Which made quick work of all the hand-wringing attendant to experimentalism. The suggestion that everyone read according to their own taste seems to satisfy no one, if eulogies for the novel and continued shots across the bow of realism are any indication. If you’re one of the few, the improbably inclined, the bookish, doubtless you have come across these squabbles. Not so long ago, Ben Marcus was a participant, and his new book, Leaving the Sea, might touch off another round of storytellers versus boundary-pushers. An argument for the best of both worlds often follows. Fiction is that small, flat stone we’re all looking for. And so: new stories by Ben Marcus. Who wants to play?
Marcus is the author of the fragmented Notable American Women, the smithereens of The Age of Wire and String, and most recently, The Flame Alphabet, a novel in a realist mode that extends one of his dark, goofy sci-fi premises. Leaving the Sea collects stories from 2000-2013, divided achronologically—meaningfully, somehow—into six sections. The stories are startlingly various. The realist pitch of the opening story-quartet culminates with “Rollingwood”, a working-class, plainspoken tear-jerker that inflicts a rough day on a divorced father. It is not at all indicative of what follows. The next section is old-school Marcusian partial transcripts of Socratic dialogues; the book’s second half is predominantly aphasic office comedies. Then there’s “Leaving the Sea” itself, a very pretty single sentence entry into the genre tour de force.
“What Have You Done?” is a conventional surprise. Paul is bloated, dull, under-successful—and he’s come home to Cleveland. He’s picked up at the airport by his family. “Mom couldn’t come?” Paul asks ominously. Paul’s married, and has a newborn child, but is such a remorseless black sheep that his family expects nothing good could come of him. About steady work, a wife and kid, he must be lying. And he must have an epiphany: “Or maybe they did believe him, and this was simply what it felt like to be believed. It felt wrong—it felt like nothing.” The story’s almost hip with coarseness. Only in later sections does Marcus loose his syntactical tics, saving his most rousing cadences for “Leaving the Sea” (“a house no different from a gut-shot animal listing in the woods, a woods no different from a spray of wire bursting through the earth…”).
“I Can Say Many Nice Things”, about a writing teacher aboard a cruise ship, also seems to set out to “work,” with its student roster one short, rumors of a man overboard, a class flirt. And yet it’s hard to imagine that all of Marcus’s years teaching writing at Columbia were leveraged in a story about a teacher not giving 110% effort to a gimmicky workshop at sea. It’s faithful enough; “landscape porn” gets a laugh; a young writing student has shapeless prose but a transfixing beard. Here are the first inklings of a mere performance of normalcy. Has Marcus gone straight? Willingly? Ironically? Experimentally?
Which brings us to “Rollingwood”: Mather is a redundant employee, a despised ex-husband, the father of a forebodingly asthmatic child, and an arranger for a last-minute sitter. The power of “Rollingwood” is in its conflicts and setups and feel-bad inevitabilities. Do we read with a nagging sense that one has to clamp or divert intelligence and artistry in order to execute form? Might we say, with a tone of cool exhaustion, that these methods are known, this setting well-trod, the outcome a penance and a downer? The first lines are of a crying child—it’s possible that one is as welcome in a short story as in a movie theater or plane row. Nonetheless, the story is a sustained act of concentration on ordinary life. At its end, there is real, crafted catharsis.
Is this transformation? A realization about traditional narrative and its infinite pulse at the heart of culture itself? (Corollary: Shall we mourn the mellowing of another radical?) Perhaps Marcus never thought he’d be any good at crafting traditional narratives, and decided to leave it to its best practitioners. As time went by, he might have thought, Here goes, that thing that friends and colleagues had, like an out of the way restaurant, always told him he should try. It’s not as if a fiction writer has ever divided head from heart and only then poured them, disembodied, out onto the page.
Stories in the unapologetic Marcus style, in précis: A man and his cranky father in a world of constant counter-terror fallout simulations; the cryptogrammic usage of “cloth,” “kill hole,” and “metronome” produce an idea: physical language, and then nothing happens; “On Not Growing Up” is a discourse on extended adolescence studies, a joke about the hyper-academicization of the childish tantrum, which, I think, in the end, I got, after reading certain passages two or three times; “My Views on the Darkness” is another unedited interview with the journal Undefined Post-Apocalypse Review; “The Father Costume” and First Love” are vaguely linked by the feeling of being a codebreaker at a cipher machine for all the times the word “bone” is transmitted in mysterious contexts.
And yet these stories, out of this literary nowhere, show a deeply humane writer at work. “The Moors,” a kind of testimony in a sexual harassment suit, dwells on the fact of the body, which tends to weigh on Marcus protagonists. Their self-consciousness fixates on orifices called “mistake tunnels.” Swells of perverse humanity are rendered unsparingly (“the canals and curves and rough red patches, bursting with boiling hair.”) And there is no shortage of feeling. Edward of the “The Loyalty Protocol” sees Hannah, the “impossibly striking” face of an obscure bureaucracy.
It meant he’d have to see more of her and regularly be reminded that she would never be his. She would never kiss him or get undressed for him or relieve his needs before work or stop trying to look pretty for him, which was the part he liked best, at least when he played out futures with women he’d never speak to. When someone like Hannah, not that there’d ever been someone like Hannah, let herself go and showed up on the couch after dinner in sweatpants and a long, chewed-up sweater. It was unbearable.
Fiction that good is almost unbearable. Now here’s a sentence, early, still in an establishing mood, from the “The Father Costume”: “If I could choose, I would picture my family stopping for small circles of bread in a safe location by the lake.” The deprivation chamber of that sentence! Why so indecisive (“If I could choose”)? And then, only to “picture,” not in actuality partake of the only shape of bread available—like in Exodus, but with springform pans instead of yeast. Safe? From what? Orienting the narrative toward answering any of these questions would constitute an act of storytelling. Marcus prefers fragments of language-bones, blips of sci-fi without helpful, scrolling preambles. There is no telling if Marcus means to confound, or has an odd way of confessing. The German doctor of “The Dark Arts” says it best: “This first. To understand this. Then, maybe.”
The Wyatt Mason quote we began with refers to the late David Foster Wallace. Often classified experimentalist (if so, many of his experiments were with realism), Wallace was late in his career a leading rhetorician of some new sensibility. Neglecting to mention his own fiction’s notorious difficulty, Wallace advocated for an openness to the reader, writing that was “morally passionate, passionately moral.” It was, however, Mason’s sense that Wallace’s writing was meant to challenge, that it was a pleasure born of uncompromising high-art prickliness (or outright defensiveness—You don’t have to play). Let us be clear: this is not an actual paradox. In the representation of life as it is—what we, for some reason, value as art—there has never been and never will be a way to just go ahead and do it. Getting the deeply, subjectively communicative onto the page is going to be just a little fraught; it will be easier said than done to get the power of words into words.
Does it make more sense to speak of a talent for storytelling, or the determination to enact it? Does Marcus frame the question? Between realism and experiment, there are lots of planted flags of argument. Unfortunately, the received concepts of “storytelling,” and beautiful “language,” falsely polarize the situation.
In these stories, Marcus’s language is bristling, it is darting, it neurotically extracts an ingrown hair; and it’s honest—envious, despondent, sexual. There is no particular lack of action, or character. If fiction—ambitious, sincere—should collapse the distinction between art and narrative, it will do so with a concept of reader. As a reader, I’ve had the sense of being anticipated, spoken to; I would also testify to reading as a continuous experience. Perhaps then we should retire our blushing admissions to liking a good story; we should even retire our discernment of good language. Fiction should be lovely and on the move. It should be spinning-gear-like and revelatory. It should be said emphatically of so much fiction: No one has to play. But if we’re readers, and we’re quiet, can we have the ball, please?