LEAVING THE SEA
by Ben Marcus
Knopf; Jan. 8, 2014
Hardcover; 288 pages
Source: Received from publisher for review
Where to start discussing this book? I’ve been putting off writing this review for weeks because I’m just not quite sure what to say. It’s the rare book that I didn’t particularly like, but that I didn’t think was bad. I think this was just not the book for me, and that makes it really hard to talk about.
Leaving the Sea is a collection of short stories by Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Alphabet. I didn’t get to read this novel, but it sounded right up my alley, and I was eager to read his stories. What I found wasn’t quite to my taste, but I was thoroughly impressed by Marcus’ power of imagination.
Some of these stories take place in a world recognizable as our own. There’s a professor teaching a creative writing course aboard a cruise ship, a man seeking medical treatment for an autoimmune disease in Germany, and a divorced father trying to take care of his sick baby. But as you move through the collection, the stories become progressively stranger. In two of the middle stories, Marcus drops the reader into interviews in very strange situations without providing any context. Reading these pieces felt like trying to solve a puzzle as I struggled to figure out what was being discussed. These stories lead to a few dystopian-seeming pieces, and then to full-on dreamscapes.
These dreamscapes place the reader in a totally foreign, possibly post-apocalyptic, world, where people disguise themselves in costumes, fabric has a language, and writing has protective powers. They are fully surreal, and although I struggled to understand the surroundings Marcus describes in a language that’s almost unrecognizable, I was blown away by Marcus’ ability to create such vivid, strange worlds.
“Bodies are hidden in the earth after they have finished breathing so that our towns will appear more peopled to the birds that fly over them, scanning for a weakness in our communities. Their vision does not tell them who is living or dead. They only see the depth of our ranks, namely, how many persons deep we are, what type of hard white scaffold supports the town, whether our underground people have an organized shape. The more buried bodies the better. The dead, if buried together, create the illusion of an army. A latticework structure of support is offered for those who still stand above the ground, who must walk over the bones of former people with no certain knowledge that the earth will not collapse beneath them.”
Despite the broad range of this collections, all of the stories have in common a sense of melancholy and an almost frightening level of introspection. Regardless of the setting, realistic or surreal, these stories are highly internal, featuring intensely overanalytical characters.
I usually enjoy books that skew on the strange side, but I had trouble with this one. Although the realistic stories at the beginning of the collection were easy to read and understand, I felt troubled by the characters. But maybe it’s a credit to Marcus’ writing ability that I felt so troubled? I was impressed by Marcus’ imagination in the later surreal stories, but I couldn’t get my head around them. Perhaps they were a tad too experimental for my comfort zone.
I’ve been struggling with what to say about this book for weeks, so forgive me if this isn’t the most coherent review I’ve ever written. The Flame Alphabet wasn’t a book I particularly enjoyed, but it does have some strong attributes. I think a reader with a stronger stomach, who likes their fiction insanely dark and twisty with doses of post-apocalyptic dreamscapes, would enjoy this book.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.