By turns hilarious and heartfelt, dark and illuminative, Ben Marcus’s Leaving the Sea is a ground breaking collection of stories from one of the single most vital, extraordinary, and unique writers of his generation.
In the heartfelt “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” a washed-up writer toying with infidelity leads a creative writing workshop on board a cruise ship. In the dystopian “Rollingwood,” a divorced father struggles to take care of his ill infant, as his ex-wife and colleagues try to render him irrelevant. In “Watching Mysteries with My Mother,” a son meditates on his mother’s mortality, hoping to stave off her death for as long as he sits by her side. And in the title story, told in a single breathtaking sentence, we watch as the narrator’s marriage and his sanity unravel, drawing him to the brink of suicide. Surreal and tender, terrifying and life-affirming, Leaving the Sea is the work of an utterly unique writer at the height of his powers.
The second collection from Marcus (The Flame Alphabet) is a peculiar, funny, original analysis of the human psyche and modern language. Split into six parts, the volume fluctuates between traditional narrative (the opener, "What Have You Done?," acts as a "stranger in a strange land" tale: a man reluctantly visits his family, only to learn his present self cannot erase memories of his younger, wilder past) and more experimental fare (the title story, for example, unspools in one breathless, exhilarating sentence). Communication is important to the author, and throughout, characters employ unusual linguistic skills, renaming common tasks (sex becomes "lust applications") and speaking about common phrases as if they are alien ("These changes in temperatures were called moods and they had interesting foreign names, but I no longer recall them," the narrator in "First Love" muses). The protagonists of most of the stories are men, and often their conflicts are flared by worried, overactive imaginations. "The Moors" plots the increasingly elaborate digressions of a man as he trails a coworker to an office coffee machine, spiraling a mundane experience into a psychological death march, while "Watching Mysteries with My Mother" and "The Loyalty Protocol" parse the responsibilities of caring for aging parents. A very strong collection.