Leaving the Sea: Stories by Ben Marcus (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 271 pp)

Ben Marcus is the author of The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women. His stories have appeared in Harper’sThe New YorkerThe Paris ReviewTin House, and Conjunctions. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and awards from the Creative Capital Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York, where he is on the faculty at Columbia University.

Anxiety

I expected Ben Marcus’ newest collection of stories to me much of the same. Marcus has made himself known as somewhat of an experimental writer, using unique narratives to portray outlandish stories. However, Marcus begins his collection of short stories with quite the normal narrative structure. The way he writes it, however, prepares the reader for a collection of stories on anxiety by making the reader anxious.

The story, “What Have You Done?” centers around a family reunion, specifically the character Rick and his brother-in-law Paul. After the usual monotony that engrosses family reunions, Marcus sets the stage.

“‘I love family,’ Rick said. ‘All of that family, together.’
‘Oh, hey, did someone get hurt tonight?’ Paul asked.
Rick looked confused, as if this were one of Paul’s trick questions.
‘I saw a stretcher go into the hotel,’ Paul explained. ‘I thought maybe something happened.’
‘Hmm, no,’ Rick said. ‘I mean, not that I know of. But I was dancing it out pretty hard'” (25).

By placing the seed of doubt in the readers mind, Marcus is telling the reader that the mystery will be solved at some point, or so it would seem. It seems like Marcus is preparing for some awful event, but the end of the story never materializes in the pages that follow. Marcus, with only a few lines of text, makes the reader anxious. In addition, Marcus posits here, and in future stories, the idea that the American family unit is no longer functioning and has deteriorated to the point that it is unrecognizable. Of the several stories that follow, Marcus continues this rather annoying (yet effective) tool to develop plot and awareness of character.

On Not Growing Up

Come the second part of the collection, Marcus begins to showcase his usual writing style. Laid out as an interview, we meet a 71-year-old man that has spent his life as a child in order that he may not experience the pains of adulthood.

“I was encouraged to look beyond the tantrum and drastic mood migrations that depended on the environment, and if you know my work you have an idea what resulted” (113).

Even a 71-year-old man desires to miss the pains of adulthood and the anxiety that it brings. But the interview shows us that anxiety is a part of life, even feigned childhood.

Other stories include the rather dystopian “Rollingwood” and “The Dark Arts”.  The former deals with a father whose child is sick (asthmatic) while his wife is estranged and his job collapsed. The latter, a man is being treated for a blood disorder at a German facility.

All considered, Marcus is able to use the narrative, both in his experimental style, and in rather ordinary prose as well to push the boundaries of anxiety. Because of the nature of these stories, reading them can often be exasperating, but nonetheless, Ben Marcus has created a masterful collection of tales in Leaving the Sea. Anxiety, paranoia, and fear of death are unusual themes for a collection of stories, but perhaps these themes cannot be any more appropriate for today’s culture.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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