Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ben Marcus, _Leaving the Sea_

TOOK MY SWEET time getting to this, partly because I had read about half of them already, partly because, you know, one worries...Marcus has been one of my favorite writers, perhaps even my very favorite among living writers of fiction, since The Age of Wire and String, and his becoming someone published in Harpers and The New Yorker carries with it a little of the anxiety I associate with hearing, decades ago, that the Replacements had signed  with Sire, or Sonic Youth with Geffen--the anxiety that Something Precious Will Inevitably Be Lost in this sweaty congress with the bitch goddess Success....

Leaving the Sea relieves me of that anxiety, however, I have to say. The Age of Wire and String, for all its deliciously bewildering strangeness, had hidden within it a tiny, realistic suburban family tragedy (the loss of the brother, the remoteness of the father), just as the suburban family tragedy of The Flame Alphabet had hidden within it the old deliciously bewildering strangeness (e.g., at every appearance of our old friend Thompson). The aspect of Marcus you notice first has shifted, but there is still a persuasive continuity in his work.

In the most nearly-apparently-normal stories here (the first four), that strangeness breaks upon the reader in the recurring trick of having the point-of-view character seem relatively ordinary, normal, and harmless in the narration, while the other characters approach and interact with the point-of-view character as if he were a dog with a reputation for biting, possibly rabid to boot. Their caution/fear is never entirely accounted for, creating an internal incongruity quite a bit like the family-drama-mediated-through-obscure-technical-vocabulary effects Marcus made his own in his early fiction.

Consequently, the older work here ("The Father Costume" and "Origins of the Family,"), with the old strangeness ("If you possess the long, white tubing instruments meant to prevent people from squeezing through small holes and disappearing, you have boning material, and you can begin to secure people to your team, insuring them against sudden departure"), can be set alongside the more recent, superficially more conventional stories ("From across the room, he saw his cousin Carla") without a terrible jar.

And then the volume wraps up with a workplace anomie story ("The Moors") that can stand comparison to The Pale King.

All of which convinces me anew that Ben Marcus is the real deal. The Ben Marcus is dead.  Long live the Ben Marcus!

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