In an interview with Salon two years ago, when his novel The Flame Alphabet was published, Ben Marcus offered a convincing argument for the absolution of some of his responsibility for his effect on readers—and perhaps, by extension, that of all writers who deal in emotional landscapes as bleak as his own. “Sometimes something horrifying … is queasily funny for some people and just plain upsetting to others,” he said. “I’m not interested in, or capable of, regulating this.”
Fair enough! If Mr. Marcus were more concerned about appeasing the fainthearted literary escapist, most of the 15 stories in his new collection, Leaving the Sea, would have to end midway through their first paragraphs. At least one, “Watching Mysteries with My Mother,” would debatably have to end after its Camus-inverting first sentence—“I don’t think my mother will die today”—and if not then, probably after what follows: “It’s late at night already.”
What continues to interest Mr. Marcus is the tension between the two halves of the phrase “black comedy,” rather than its effects. The stories in Leaving the Sea range considerably in style, starting with fairly straightforward, conventionally paced narratives: a creative-writing professor considering an affair with a student, for instance, or a onetime pariah returning to his hometown after many years away. As the collection moves forward, the work grows more dystopian and experimental. In the second of the book’s six sections, Mr. Marcus writes two short, clinical dialogues with leaders of imagined extremisms: One believes that adulthood is a harmful construct to be counteracted by “re-childing”; the other that the best course of action during an apocalyptic event is to bury oneself, completely isolated, in an underground cavity. Several stories later in the book are accounts of what might be called post-humans, trying to wrap words around the experience of love and the despair at its loss, in a world in which the necessary language has atrophied. And Mr. Marcus writes, in the title story, one six-page sentence that encompasses the entire downward spiral of middle age in its endless betrayals: parents’ aging, children’s demands, a marriage dissolving, a body and eventually a whole being that become uncooperative and unknowable.
Despite this melancholy, Mr. Marcus is often quite funny. He is marvelous on the level of the sentence and in his depiction of flawed human logic. “In some sense, my feelings towards my wife and children are more intense when the moment is not complicated by their presence,” offers the man who plans to bury himself underground. A description of another character is perhaps one of the best failed tautologies in recent memory: “He thought of himself as deeply empathic—if mainly toward himself.”
Mr. Marcus is at his best when this poetic instinct for language converges with his steady and sharp sense of plotting. Several of the later stories reveal narrative arcs in a way that feels almost accidental, because it is so easy to get caught up in what could pass for a glossary of the uncanny: “In America the head sprouts either soft or coarse hair, features small apologies called eyes, and has a round mistake tunnel known as a mouth.”
Each story is shot through with anxiety, especially of the sexual variety, but also about aging, the future, maturation, alienation, family and the vagaries of illness.The old irony of alienation—wondering whether everyone else feels it, too—has been expressed by everyone from Thoreau to Tears for Fears. Likewise, the revelation that all relationships end is a pretty basic one, but the Cartesian filter through which Mr. Marcus examines it is entirely his own. “In truth, every man’s body is an announcement of a future disappearance. Just by being in the room with her, I was foreshadowing our separation,” a character observes. “If we ever need to know what will go away, we need only to look at a person. Anyone.” Throughout, Mr. Marcus is obsessed by the distinction between, as well as the intersection of, togetherness and solitude, and by all the ways in which love can be selfish. “In what way would commitment to each other differ from a commitment against our own solitude?” the narrator in “Against Attachment” wonders. “In what way would our displays of affection toward each other differ from advertisements of what we most wanted done to ourselves?”
In practice, Mr. Marcus’ men—and his protagonists are almost always men—are lucky to receive any displays of affection at all. Leaving the Sea is a catalog of men beleaguered, abused and abandoned by women. There is a girlfriend who leaves her boyfriend in Europe, where he is receiving experimental treatment for a blood condition, then shows up two weeks later pretending nothing’s wrong, and a wife who disappears for a week, leaving our hero with their baby, getting him fired, then showing up to ream him out for leaving the baby with a sitter. There is a woman who wounds her husband just by having a physical presence: “Erin looked at him with her sharp face and her knife-chopped hair, bangs of razor perfection, chastising eyes and bones—the whole of Erin so fatally sharp that he was silently criticized by her appearance, criticized for more or less everything he’d ever done.”
Unsurprisingly, the pretty women in the universe of Leaving the Sea are the worst. They are variously “crazy, if highly attractive” or “unbearably beautiful” or “fucking cute” (and cruel), or “impossibly striking” (and mean) and are best dealt with by way of a kind of awed but offensive denial: “He had been so desperately compelled by her face that he had instantly resolved never to look at her or show her any kind of attention.” As we learn of one character’s relationship to a woman he barely knows, “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 the woman turns out to be unkind, it is both a confirmation and a betrayal.
The final, and longest, story in Leaving the Sea, “The Moors,” has a simple enough premise: Thomas, a man working in a lab, follows an attractive co-worker to the coffee cart in the building. He trails her unnoticed, alternately lusting after her, hating her for her beauty and hating himself for his awkwardness. He recognizes many of his musings as malevolent but somehow also still wishes to be rewarded for them. “If only she knew my thoughts she would take her pants off. My thoughts should count for something,” he thinks, though clearly hers don’t.
It would be fashionable, among certain young women (and feminist-leaning men), to call Thomas, like some of his Leaving the Sea neighbors, a “Nice Guy,” which is to say he is the only one who thinks he is nice. The term describes a loser, ugly or awkward or both, who grows to resent attractive and confident women for preferring to have sex with attractive and confident men instead of with him. He cannot reconcile his entitlement to sex with his conviction that he also doesn’t deserve it: “Couldn’t the coffee cart be the best location to lay waste to the awkwardness that interfered whenever Thomas began to smell the possibility of the good, craven congress with unhospitalized women the world had yet to fully pay him?”
It is possible, in theory, to feel a certain sympathy for the Nice Guy—being lonely, feeling isolated in your awkwardness and alienated by social conventions you can’t convincingly mimic is painful no matter who you are. But it’s hard to tell where Mr. Marcus himself lands on the question of how much sympathy his characters have earned. At a certain point in some of these stories, the characters stop being flawed and start feeling more like flaws personified, a shift made all the thornier by their embattled self-awareness. Maybe Thomas’ misplaced desire and resentment for the women to whom he is invisible amount to misogyny, but he’ll never hate women as much as he hates himself: “The nearly sexual urge Thomas had to destroy himself through difficult encounters, encounters like these with women who surpassed him in every measurable way, would provide the sweet subject matter for days of mistake analysis, the richest pastime.”
Still, the vitriol Thomas has for the most basic life functions of this woman, his fervent and mistaken belief that they have anything to do with him, are keen. Like the character who is chastened by the mere fact of his wife’s face, Thomas is insulted by the movements his colleague executes without ever being aware he’s watching them. “What was it called, he wondered, when you provoke feelings of inferiority and general shittiness in others simply by the way you walk? When your mode of personal locomotion, in its devil-may-care mastery, serves as a scold to everyone fat and moist and ingloriously failed, sitting in their chairs, tired, swollen, and angry?”
“The Moors” is told mostly in the recent past tense, unraveling Thomas’ journey from his desk to the coffee machine over the course of dozens of pages. Near its close, though, it changes to future tense, switching from what happened to Thomas today to what will happen to him tonight when he gets home. The story ends with Thomas putting his son to sleep, climbing gently into bed with a wife who is, it is suggested, on life support and telling her, “I missed you today.”
In this and several other stories, sympathetic details are strategically unleashed to complicate the hostility of which Mr. Marcus proves, at length and in detail, characters like Thomas are capable. Will a reader find these poignant elements redemptive—a just cause, in “The Moors,” for example, for all Thomas’ squalling self-pity and self-fulfilling defeatism and casual dismissal of his colleague’s humanity?
Some will, I would imagine, read the balance as nuance. I didn’t, thanks to a mounting frustration with the suggestion that a character like this deserves any pity beyond the mountain he has afforded himself. But I doubt Mr. Marcus is interested in, or capable of, regulating this.