Cool, Clinical, and Outrageous

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X-ray, Tazz, Algeria

Unless they are subscribers to Harper’s or The New Yorker, admirers of the experimental fiction of Ben Marcus are likely to find themselves somewhat baffled by the four stories that make up the first section of Leaving the Sea—although not, perhaps, as baffled as the uninitiated reader who picked up Marcus’s previous collection of stories, The Age of Wire and String, published in 1995, and perused, say, the opening of the first one, “Intercourse with Resuscitated Wife”:

Intercourse with resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery. Electricity mourns the absence of the energy form (wife) within the household’s walls by stalling its flow to the outlets. As such, an improvised friction needs to take the place of electricity, to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels. This is achieved with the dead wife. She must be found, revived, and then penetrated until heat fills the room, until the toaster is shooting bread onto the floor, until she is smiling beneath you with black teeth and grabbing your bottom.

“Weird,” surely, would be the adjective elicited by a survey of responses to Marcus’s first three works of fiction. The Age of Wire and String was followed by two novels, Notable American Women (2002) and The Flame Alphabet (2012): the former entangles us in the peculiar practices of a cult of women who aim to achieve complete stillness and silence, and who use (unsuccessfully) Ben Marcus, the son of one of the cult’s members, for propagation purposes, although he seems to prefer the attentions of a large dog called Pal; while in the latter novel children’s speech, and even their writing, has somehow become toxic for all adults, forcing them, as in some disaster movie, to flee to the country to escape the life-sapping poison that they imbibe every time they hear a child talk.

The disturbing scenarios of J.G. Ballard lurk in the hinterland of Notable American Women and The Flame Alphabet; both also, however, occasionally put me in mind of certain kids’ movies, such as Monsters, Inc. or Rise of the Guardians, in which everyday anxieties or miseries are translated into full-blown fantasies of oppression and threatened disaster. Like Ballard’s, Marcus’s prose aims at the clinical, the coolly outrageous, and there is much technical exposition, although Marcus is drawn not to minute descriptions of car crashes or high-rises, but to inventing outlandish uses for low-tech materials such as cloth, wire, grease, rubber, and string.

In a spirited piece published in Harper’s in 2005, Marcus attacked what he saw as the wholesale dumbing down of American fiction, and in particular the ascendancy of Jonathan Franzen, whose much-publicized dislike of “difficult” novels, such as those by William Gaddis, Marcus construed as a threat to all experimental writers attempting to create “the stranger, harder…

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