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 texts, the lyrically unique ones that work outside the realm of familiarity.” Public literary spats of this kind often testify to the health of the genre that is being fought over, but they can also trap the contestants into fixed positions that fail to reflect the catholic nature of readerly—and indeed writerly—desire: in some moods only, say, late Beckett hits the spot, or early Gertrude Stein, while in others one yearns for Barbara Pym or Alice Munro; and writers’ styles often evolve (Joyce is a good example) in quite unimaginable ways.
“I Can Say Many Nice Things” was also first published in Harper’s, in the summer of 2013, and couldn’t be called strange or hard or outside the realm of familiarity. It’s pretty good, though. Fleming, a not very popular novelist and teacher of creative writing, accepts an assignment running a short-story class on a cruise. This situation allows Marcus to rehearse some highly effective creative-writing class jokes and types. There’s Timothy, only twenty-two but sporting a prodigious beard, whose story Fleming praises at sophisticated length in the hope of boosting his end-of-course evaluations: “I wrote that story,” Timothy reveals at the end of Fleming’s complex analysis of it to the class, “in like two hours so I’m surprised anyone liked it at all.”
The sad, balding George offers up a piece that consists merely of a description of a man walking through a moody landscape. “It’s landscape porn,” complains the bearded Timothy, “just masturbatory images of mountains and lanes and creeks and desert and there’s no drama to any of it…. Like, what if I described a teacup for five pages? Would anyone care?” As George scribbles all of this down, Fleming can’t help wondering what exactly he is writing; “Story is no better than description of a teacup?”
George’s story inspires in Fleming the urge to embark on a monologue on the nouveau roman, an urge he stifles, knowing that his propensity to discuss the work of his favorite writers in class ends up inspiring the complaint in student questionnaires that he is always “stalling.” After much discussion of the uses of landscape in fiction, George declares that he has one final question for the group: “If this was set in a city, instead of out west,” he inquires, “do people think that would make it better?”
Few would have thought, after reading his first books, that Marcus might have a campus novel in him, but that is what “I Can Say Nice Things” suggests, and along with the three New Yorker stories that make up the first section of Leaving the Sea, it demonstrates an intriguing diversification of his talent. That said, these stories also seem to me emotionally driven by the concern that motivates much of even the most experimental, antirealist stretches of Marcus’s oeuvre: the family. (It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that Franzen’s rise to fame was on the back of his more conventional treatment of family life in The Corrections.) Poor Fleming, missing his wife, Erin, and their young child, phones home from the ship, but finds his helpmeet in an unforgiving mood:
“You can’t say one nice thing?”
“I can say many nice things.”
Just not to you, being the implication.
“All right, well, I don’t know what I did, but I’m sorry.”
“How can you apologize if you don’t know what you did?”
Here we go.
“I’m not sure how, Erin. But I apologize, I really do.”
“We’ll talk when you get back.”
“Let’s talk now.”
“I really, really, really, really can’t.”
What kind of “improvised friction” will be needed to resuscitate this particular “dead wife” on Fleming’s return?
The fragmentation of the family dramatized in Marcus’s writing is one of the most distinctive features of his work. Notable American Women opens with a letter from Michael Marcus, Ben’s father, who is imprisoned in an underground cell in Ohio, and bombarded by hurtful words—in a premonition of The Flame Alphabet—fired at him through a tube by his jailer. Pathetic and helpless, a signifier of patriarchy comprehensively undone, Michael Marcus yet persists in the fantasy that his state of deprivation and exile from the family bosom has qualified him to be a kind of perfect father figure:
You’ll note that when a man is rendered to an underground compartment, such as the case with myself, he becomes, among other things, immune to category, beyond a single family, a supervisor of the world he left behind. Such a one is the ideal father.
His wife Jane, meanwhile, oversees Ben’s mating sessions, chastising him when evidence is found of a “solo send,” urging him to raise his “readiness flag” so one of the women can straddle him and make the “withdrawal” inside her, and maybe get pregnant. As such locutions illustrate, the prose of Notable American Women is relatively affectless, asking us to accept at face value its bizarre power structures and the peculiar terminology that they have spawned, as well as their complex pseudohistories, which are all expounded with the deadpan detachment of an anthropologist.
The novel’s notable American women triumph utterly, yet their goal of complete stillness and silence is also a parodic fulfilment of the notion of female repression. And while the book is too technical, and recessed, to be called an assault on the concept of the nuclear family, its central premise allows Marcus to explore from a range of clinical perspectives the dissolution of family ties, and the subsequent separation into different spheres of the Marcus family, Michael, Jane, and Ben. (Jane Marcus, the novelist’s mother, incidentally, is a well-known feminist literary critic and a professor at CUNY, where his father, Michael Marcus, is a professor of mathematics; when questioned about these autobiographical references, the novelist coolly replied: “My family was very loving and I’ve never been to Ohio.”)
The Flame Alphabet also describes the painful process of tearing asunder a three-person family unit: husband Sam, wife Claire, and their fourteen-year-old daughter Esther are here used by Marcus to examine how a family might respond to the intolerable pressures exerted by the book’s brilliantly horrible conceit. Its emotional charge, which is much greater than that of Notable American Women, mainly derives from Sam’s well-meaning but hapless attempts to prevent the bonds that unite this trio from turning cataclysmically sour because of Esther, who rather enjoys the distress she finds she can cause her parents simply by talking.
At times the dystopian vision of The Flame Alphabet can seem to have its origins in parental outrage at teenage bolshiness and noncompliance. Claire’s maternal love for Esther, however much she suffers at her hands, or rather mouth, overrides all other considerations for her, leaving Sam to fuss about on his own with sound abatement fabrics, anti-comprehension pills, symptom charts, a toxicity screen, and callipers with which to measure the shrinking of one’s facial features, which is the most striking outward symptom of the “crushing” that adults experience on exposure to children’s speech.
As in so many Pixar movies, it is the embedding of stock American family rituals within a wildly improbable setting that creates the feeling that we are following a story whose warp is ordinary, while its woof is fantastical. Esther returns from camp, that standard rite of passage for the American teen, uncommunicative and sulky; this disappoints her parents, but then she suddenly grows talkative and launches into a long monologue about a horse called Genghis that took a shine to her: the result of listening to Esther natter on is “textbook”—Claire can’t breathe, her eyes glaze over, and she is violently sick:
For what felt like hours we sat together on the bathroom floor with the faucet in full thunder, until outside the streetlights sizzled out and we could be sure that Esther had finally gone to her room for the night and closed the door. Only then was it safe to come out.
Relishing her newfound power, Esther turns increasingly feral, terrorizing her parents and launching, like a soldier gone berserk, round after round of lethal verbal ammunition into a helpless adult whom she comes across on one of her nightly forays. The physical disintegration of Claire is itemized in harrowing detail, but Sam proves more resilient and proactive, hooking up with a sinister team of researchers whose experiments in quest of an antidote evoke those of Nazi concentration camp medical teams. He ends the book, however, holed up in a hut in the woods on his own, a classic American hermit in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, but having, every now and again, to capture, imprison, and torture a child in order to replenish his stock of the antiviral serum that he discovers can be made from the residue that children cough up from their lungs when scared out of their wits. It preserves his life, and allows him to spend his days imagining what he, Claire, and Esther will do when eventually reunited “as a family,” the book’s closing three words.
Family trios under strain or in the process of being prised apart also feature in a number of the stories collected in Leaving the Sea. “The Loyalty Protocol” (first published in January 2013) occupies fictional terrain similar to that of The Flame Alphabet. An unspecified disaster looms, and in preparation for the mass evacuation that it will necessitate, citizens periodically receive a phone call in the middle of the night instructing them to gather in the gymnasium of the local high school. Well, not all citizens receive this call. Edward, the story’s protagonist, does, but his aging parents don’t—for reasons not given they are not on the list. Edward, being a dutiful son, stops by for them, but is roundly berated by the leader of his “settlement” (Marcus loves deploying spooky, totalitarian-sounding euphemisms) for doing so. His infraction of the loyalty protocol is brought to the attention of the cultish leader of these evacuation rehearsals, one Frederick, who promises to do Edward serious harm should he ever attempt such a stunt again.
The next rehearsal turns out not to be a rehearsal at all. Chastened, Edward doesn’t this time think to bring along his parents, but as the settlements gather at the high school he spots his father in a group of old-timers, and gathers from him that his mother has been left at home asleep. Father and son are put on different buses. At the end of a stop that the convoy makes after a couple of days on the road, the driver of Edward’s bus fails to reappear. The convoy sets off anyway. “Of course the windows of the buses were dark,” the story ends,
so he couldn’t see, but in one of them, perhaps pressed against the glass, perhaps waving at him at this very moment, waving hello and, of course, good-bye, was his father. So Edward, just in case, raised his own hand, too. Raised it and waved—thinking, Good-bye, Dad, at least for now—as the other buses built up speed down the highway and disappeared from sight, leaving the rest of them alone in the grass by the side of the road.
“The Father Costume,” “Watching Mysteries with My Mother,” “The Dark Arts,” and “Rollingwood” are all similarly triangulated, allowing one to feel that in the three-way family split Marcus has found his primal narrative, the ideal plot formula for his particular take on life.
Leaving the Sea, as I’ve suggested, is more stylistically varied than Marcus’s previous three books would have led one to expect. The opening section is more or less realist, while the other five sections would all be allotted different positions on a spectrum that ran from “avant-garde and peculiar” to “this could be in The New Yorker”—where “What Have You Done?,” “The Dark Arts,” and “Rollingwood” first appeared. The protagonists of all three of these are men struggling, like Fleming and Sam and Edward, with familial pressures, and desperately attempting to head off various kinds of disaster. Julian in “The Dark Arts” suffers from an autoimmune disease for which he seeks a state-of-the-art cure in a German clinic; the other corners of his triangle are his patient father, who funds this expensive treatment, and his girlfriend Hayley, who accompanies him on the trip but then goes AWOL, and is brusquely dismissed by Julian when she finally shows up. The overweight and formerly chaotic and violent Paul of “What Have You Done?” must cope with an extended family reunion in Cleveland (why this harping on Ohio when Marcus claims never to have been there!), and his parents’ and sister’s refusal to believe that he has got his life together and now has a wife and child, and is thus part of a trio.
More embattled still is Mather of “Rollingwood,” a story that subjects its put-upon father to forms of distress almost as extreme as those visited upon Michael Marcus of Notable American Women, trapped in his subterranean cell and bombarded with poisonous words. Mather shares the burden of looking after his asthmatic toddler son, Alan, with Alan’s mother, Maureen, from whom he is separated. Maureen, a caricature of unpleasantness, takes off with her boyfriend Roger for an unspecified time, leaving Mather to try to juggle child-care duties and work responsibilities; the boy’s nursery is shut for some reason, the sitter he hires speaks hardly any English, he slowly discovers that he is being fired from his job, and when Maureen at last returns she douses him in corrosive invective, then stomps off with Alan.
Nevertheless, like Sam at the end of The Flame Alphabet, Mather remains committed to the ideal of the family, however unlikely it is that this particular threesome will regroup and live together in harmony. Alone, and with no job and nothing to do, all Mather can think of is buying a train set for his son:
At home tonight, Mather will lay the pieces out on the floor, and he’ll start building, because it could take a few days to get it done, and this way he’ll have a head start. He wants to be ready for next time. He wants to bring the boy in and present it to him and see the look in the boy’s eyes when he lowers him into place and pushes that very first train into view.
A story like “Rollingwood” aims to wring the heart, or at least the male heart, in a fashion not so different from the saga of woe visited on Gary in Franzen’s The Corrections, and it is certainly written in a manner strikingly at odds with the dense descriptive mode that Marcus developed in his early fictions out of the work of experimental French writers such as Raymond Roussel (about whom Marcus has written for Harper’s) and Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose innovative fictional techniques Fleming just resists expounding in his creative-writing class on the high seas.
The earliest pieces—probably they should be called “texts”—gathered in this volume, “First Love” of 2000, “Origins of the Family” (originally called “Bones”) of 2001, and “The Father Costume” of 2002, illustrate the intensity of Marcus’s desire to move beyond “preapproved modes” of fiction, as he calls the conventional novel in his attack on Franzen in Harper’s. Such writings are aimed at exercising, he explains in this article, the bit of the brain called Wernicke’s area, which is largely responsible for language comprehension, and was discovered by the German neurologist Carl Wernicke in 1874. Marcus goes on to imagine the Wernicke’s area of his ideal reader as
staffed by an army of jumpsuited code-breakers, working a barn-size space that is strung about the rafters with a mathematically intricate lattice of rope and steel, and maybe gusseted by a synthetic coil that is stronger and more sensitive than either, like guitar strings made from an unraveled spinal cord.
At the end of each reading session this formidably equipped ideal reader “would cough up a thimble of fine gray powder,” rather as the terrified captured child coughs up a residue that forms the basis of the antiviral serum discovered by Sam at the end of The Flame Alphabet. This powder, Marcus adds, is a “mineral-rich substance” that can be used to compost a garden: hard work, in other words, but like a vigorous session of exercise, good for you; and even a help in fulfilling Voltaire’s famous injunction at the end of Candide, “il faut cultiver notre jardin.”
The trio of “The Father Costume” are a father and two sons. Fabric is the medium that the piece deploys or conjugates: “My father’s costumes were gray and long and of the finest pile, sometimes clear enough for us to see through,” it opens, that second clause acting like a bell summoning to work the jumpsuited code-breakers slumbering in one’s Wernicke’s area—costumes clear enough to see through?
There is nothing, however, allegorical about the codes that unspool in Marcus’s spinning of his yarn, to make use of the story’s dominant vocabulary set, for the story harbors no secret message waiting to be revealed by the reader’s inner Alan Turing. The figurative and the literal are, rather, so interwoven that they cannot be disentangled: “My brother and I,” the speaker tells us, “oiled the Costume Gun, gathered yarn each morning after a storm, and donated any leftover swatches of fabric into our mother’s kill hole out on the back platform.” The ancients studied the entrails of slaughtered animals in search of knowledge of the future; the protagonists of Marcus’s narrative study the random patterns made by tossed up bits of cloth:
My father threw handfuls of our mother’s fabrics in the morning and studied how they fell, diagrams in cloth that could have meant anything. His body was hunched and foreign. He grimaced with each gesture, his face often decorated with cotton bracings. When the disarray proved baffling to him, he brought in my brother for consultations. I sat on the bench and watched them crouch at their work. I could not read fabric.
They set off on a journey by boat across a lake, using bronze wires to create “a decoy trail for any Cloth Monitors watching us escape,” occasionally shooting “a thin piece of wool into the water as an offering.” As in George’s landscape-filled nonstory, the atmosphere is predominantly moody, pre- or postapocalyptic, and not much exactly happens, or rather turns of event—such as the murder of the narrator’s brother by his father—are delivered in such an offbeat way that they barely register:
The second parcel in my father’s bag contained a metronome, with a hollow darning needle that served as the wand. He placed it near my brother, adjusted the dial to Suffocate, and caused my brother, after several spasms of resistance, to stop breathing. Our boat felt lighter immediately, and we began to pick up speed, slicing softly through a water channel that suddenly seemed light as air.
Marcus’s early writings strike me as extraordinary feats of transposition; their goal appears to be to create a linguistic simulacrum of a new medium or unknown dimension of being, in which familiar words and scenarios take on radically different kinds of implication, of weight or lightness, as if the laws of gravity had suddenly changed. One wonders if, as was the case for Roussel, some algorithm or formula—what Roussel called his procédé très spécial, which he revealed only after his death—lurks behind Marcus’s quest for new kinds of verbal alchemy. Clearly, however, he is more aware than ever was poor Roussel (who was convinced he’d become as famous as Jules Verne or Pierre Loti, though his works sold in pitiable quantities) that there’s only a limited pool of readers out there looking to have their Wernicke’s area vigorously stimulated, or willing to learn to read fabric.
It will be interesting to see what directions Marcus’s writing takes next. Will the trajectory of his career be similar to that of, say, Paul Auster, who cut his teeth exploring and absorbing and reconfiguring various European avant-garde traditions and developments in literary theory, but found fame and fortune by injecting select aspects of the experimental into highly traditional novelistic structures?
Marcus is clearly very smart. This collection reveals him at a fascinating crossroads: those who relished the mode of The Age of Wire and String will be delighted to have fugitive pieces from the early part of his career gathered together, but may well wonder if there’ll always be as much distance between his work and that of his bête noire Franzen as his Harper’s article proclaimed; those more reluctant to have the code-breakers at rest in their brains galvanized into action will certainly enjoy the recent stories that make up the first section of Leaving the Sea, and may even be encouraged by them to hope that Marcus will one day write a blockbuster.