The eponymous tale in Ben Marcus’s superlative collection of stories, Leaving the Sea, explains the precise nature of the departure. “I would have gills,” says our nameless, rambling narrator, “if I were something better that had never tried to leave the sea, something more beautiful that could glide underwater and breathe easily.” In many of the stories here we encounter characters locked in equally untenable wish fulfillment–dreams, not leaving the sea but at sea, unmoored and adrift. Others are on dry land but in bizarre, unrecognizable quarters where both civilization and speech has been razed or adumbrated. Others have managed to put up a fight against evolution and have willingly regressed to prelapsarian states and surroundings.
The gill-less narrator in “Leaving the Sea” rues his status but doesn’t finish his sentence until two pages later. In Ben Marcus’s fictions, thoughts are prioritized over deeds. Language trumps plot. Marcus’s stylistic dexterity and warped realities are in evidence throughout his work, from The Age of Wire and String (1995) to Notable American Women (2002) to his breakthrough novel, The Flame Alphabet (2012). Leaving the Sea brims with linguistic inventiveness. We marvel as Marcus rebrands or defamiliarizes language (“she wore motion-limiting weights called shoes”), burnishes quotidian banalities and standard routines into gleamingly original processes (“she hobbyhorsed on top of him in pursuit of her sexual quota, with the focus of a child doing homework, grimacing when her time came”)—or simply disintegrates words into “a crude alphabet of sounds.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this collection, though, is Marcus’s range. Leaving the Sea is leaving our comfort zone, as we graze from traditional reality-steeped tales into less definable and more mind-bending prose. The deeper we immerse ourselves, the greater our loss of purchase. Think dioptric correction: a specialist incrementally distorting our focus, teaching us to see in new and liberating ways. We come up from the page giddy and disoriented but, predominantly, exhilarated.
In the fall of 2013 Marcus was a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy. I tried to catch up with him there but gaps in our schedules were scant in the year-end rush. Instead, the following interview was conducted in January by email.
Malcolm Forbes: All fifteen of the stories in Leaving the Sea have been published before, the majority under different titles. Several appeared over ten years ago. Do they appear here as they were first published or have you tinkered with them?
Ben Marcus: Most have been revised since their initial publication, some not much, others a good bit. When enough time goes by I become increasingly alarmed by what I’ve written and I tend to revise more. Or I strip down and rebuild. The flaws are always more apparent over time. But these stories all went through an editorial process at their respective magazines, so for the most part the major revisions happened when they were initially published.
MF: I was amazed to read in an interview with The Millions that when writing The Flame Alphabet you cut as much as you kept—four or five hundred pages of deleted material. Did you apply a similar ruthlessness when editing these stories?
BM: I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don’t keep coherent, or sometimes any, records of this. For a little while these dull detours offer some comfort, a place to return to if I become stranded elsewhere, but invariably I find unpursued pages on the floor and I am almost always confirmed in my suspicion that they were unpromising and pointless.
MF: In your debut, The Age of Wire and String, the contents—I hesitate to call them “stories,”—are arranged into eight thematic sections: Sleep, Food, Animal, etc. The stories—which they clearly are—in Leaving the Sea are also divided into sections, but come without headings. The arrangement is far from arbitrary. Each cluster appears to be based more on style than content. We begin with four involving but relatively “conventional” tales and gradually progress into more “experimental” prose. Was such an ordering a practical means of classification, or was it your intention to take the reader on some kind of journey, from one end of the storytelling spectrum to the other?
BM: When I looked at all of the stories in the collection, and thought about their emotional effect, and how that effect was achieved—what kind of language was used, dense and strange or open and light, familiar or foreign—it made a kind of sense to not begin with the hardest surfaces. Most of the stories seem emotionally difficult to me, but they have different ways of arriving at that. I thought that if someone made it through a more transparent story, at the level of language, then they might be slightly more available to a similar emotional territory if it was achieved with a different kind of language. On the other hand, people skip around when they read collections. Or I do. In some way the order doesn’t, or can’t, matter too much. It is out of one’s control. But for those looking to read obediently, according to the author’s true desire, I tried to arrange the experience.
MF: Those first four stories deal with male protagonists, all of whom are lonely, jaded, and cast-off. You’ve spoken and written about your admiration for Thomas Bernhard, and these characters are redolent of his, particularly his Untergeher in The Loser. In “What Have You Done?” Paul returns for a reunion and rails against Cleveland and the family he jettisoned years ago; in “I Can Say Many Nice Things” Fleming is a worn-out creative writing professor desperately trying to muster up enthusiasm to coach his hopeless students; “The Dark Arts” shadows Julian floundering in Düsseldorf; and in the Kafkaesque “Rollingwood” we watch as Mather is ostracized by those around him and shunted into obscurity. All four characters are very much Men without Women. Many are fat and plagued with self-loathing. Do you see each story as a variation on a single theme? Do such characters open up richer fictional possibilities for you?
BM: These are very different stories to me, but in some zoological sense perhaps you’re right. Well-adjusted, beautiful, content people never seem to apply for my stories. I fire them in, with my cannon, and they fall right back out again. In general, I dive for sorrow and conflict and grief, and these are the bodies I keep finding. I suppose there’s a recurring solitude and sadness in these stories, loneliness, a kind of merciless outside world, unforgiving in how it receives these people. These aren’t inventions or conceits to me. They are given. This seems to be a pretty basic fact about how the world operates. But any thematic similarity in the stories is something I only notice later. I am not executing a conscious plan. If I thought in advance that here’s another sadsack story of a tragic fatman, I’d probably not write the story. I do tend to look back, after I’ve written a book, and see everything I might try to avoid going forward. Maybe there’s a male type there that snuck in inadvertently. Maybe he should be killed off, although he’s funnier and more interesting to me alive.
MF: Your second cluster contains two likeminded stories constructed as Q&As. “On Not Growing Up” is an interview with a 71-year-old child who seeks to “shed the strictures of adulthood and make maturity an optional result of a freely lived human life”—or, simply, to “re-child” people; “My Views on the Darkness” is an exchange with a man who has renounced family, home, and job aboveground for a subterranean existence. Suddenly we are far removed from that opening quartet and plunged into more taxing narratives, less concerned with that quaint notion of character development and more centered on ingrained character traits. Are both these stories about reverting to some primeval version of ourselves? Do you have to exert a kind of authorial restraint as the interviewees spend the bulk of their page-time telling—explaining and rationalizing their existences?
BM: The two experts in these stories are promoting something awful and untenable, but I suppose it is primal, a rogue argument for a nearly violent simplicity. They have a “solution” to life that is completely isolating and difficult, a solution that highlights our terminal solitude. But I am probably more interested in their mania and deep belief than I am in the specific details of their doctrine. They are, to me, coldly rational madmen, and I tried to make their cases persuasive.
MF: The next two stories, about caring for parents, are focused on death, or at least the measures implemented to ward it off and prolong living. In “Watching Mysteries with My Mother” the narrator deconstructs an English mystery on PBS while meditating on his mother’s imminent and inevitable demise (the first line being a neat inversion of Camus’ famous opener: “I don’t think my mother will die today”). “The Loyalty Protocol” is less direct, the reader given whiffs of apocalypse and forced to extrapolate the true nature of the encroaching disaster from scattered clues—drills, evacuation, emergency buses, settlements. Here, the protagonist’s mother is fine, sleeping soundly, albeit “In a city that might soon be empty.” Despite the air of queasy uncertainty, both stories end on a relatively positive note. Does despair in fiction serve a purpose (I’m thinking again of Bernhard’s bleak perspectives)? Do you see enough chinks of light and hope in your work?
BM: In the end I am uplifted, profoundly so, by the bleakest, despairing work. It’s a great unburdening to read work of this sort. I do not want to be asked to pretend that everything is all right, that people are fundamentally happy, that life is perfectly fine, and that it is remotely ok that we are going to die, and soon, only to disappear into oblivion. I feel a kind of ridiculous joy when writing reveals the world, the way it feels to be in the world. That’s what hope is, a refusal to look away.
MF: Despite the hints of doom or jaundiced visions in these stories, there exists an unmistakable vein of humor. Fleming, a wonderful creation, takes a break from tutoring before having to “replenish his stores of fraudulence” and “summon his artillery of deceit.” Cleveland returnee Paul’s caustic sideswipes are hilarious. In “First Love”—closer to Beckett’s spin on the title than Turgenev’s—we find gloom shot through with wit to create laughter in the dark: “low-flying bullets were still called friends, and periods of suffering were broken up into intervals called days.” To what extent would you consider yourself a comic writer?
BM: To no extent, but I’m not concerned to classify myself in any particular way. The word writer is too much already. But I do try to be funny, because I like watching what it does to people’s bodies when they writhe with laughter. And comedy, for me, is a way of regulating the pressure in a story, a way to modulate feeling and relax people before you wind up again for the kill.
MF: Part 4 is in fact one story, “The Father Costume.” Part 6, the last section, is the collection’s other standalone story, “The Moors.” Both are magisterial. The former depicts a post-apocalyptic water-based landscape in which people row in small boats and don’t communicate—language having eroded as much as terra firma. The latter tracks a man’s short journey but tortuous, digressive and lascivious thoughts as he follows a co-worker from his office cubicle to the coffee cart (“fat Thomas the sadness machine” being reminiscent of the four characters in the first cluster). “The Father Costume,” so methodically mapped and self-contained and clad with specific jargon, feels to me as if it could have been extended into a longer work. “The Moors” weighs in at more than forty pages and so feels more like a novella. All of which is a convoluted way of asking how you prepare a piece of fiction. Do you start writing with a short story in mind, stopping at a natural point when it runs its course or fleshing out into a novel if it has legs? Or is each new work planned at the outset and given a finite length?
BM: Neither of those stories was ever going to be longer. And “The Moors” always felt dangerously long for what it was—a story about a man standing in line, freaking out. “The Father Costume” was in fact published as a limited edition book, with images by Matthew Ritchie, so it did, for a while, sort of stand alone. But the length always felt just right to me.
MF: In “The Moors,” as in The Flame Alphabet, language is a pollutant: “speech . . . was an annoyance that also happened to sour his body like a toxin.” You do potent things with language in your construction of worlds where language has atrophied or died. There is that wealth of technological language that colors most of your earlier work, and intricate wordplay and jumbled thoughts in the monologues of the more troubled and introspective characters here. Would it be fair to say that language doesn’t just construct and infuse your work, it is your work? As far as I can see, language overrides plot, character, themes, everything.
BM: Well, language is everyone’s work, not just mine. And it is ourselves and our bodies and our lives, too. I’ve thought myself in circles about this, and I’ll never shed the fascination, and horror, and amazement I feel for what language, the very fact of it, suggests. I long ago stopped trying to make a point about this. I’d much rather enact this awe and confusion and amazement, the paradox of it, than try to say something definitive about language. I am perfectly happy being at its mercy, even if it is not always so merciful.
MF: “The Father Costume” sees humdrum words (Cloth Diviner, Costume Smoother, kill holes, and writing holes) alchemized into foreign terminology. Functions are seldom explained, but every time the reader takes you at your word and simply accepts your truth. Which brings us to the final, most experimental batch of stories in which language is reinterpreted, even reinvented. There is a stream of revamped definitions: “An obituary water called rain,” “a round mistake tunnel known as a mouth,” etc. Does this kind of writing come naturally to you? Is the creative process harder here than in those more traditional stories?
BM: These pieces were written during a period when this felt like an intuitive way to write. There are a lot of equations in the prose. This is that, that is this. But the equations are disturbed. Or, who knows, perhaps they are accurate. What’s harder for me when I write this way is the question of form. What are these pieces and how do they proceed? How does one make a story out of sentences like this? I can string these kinds of sentences together but the logic of cohesion eludes me, and yet I am pretty attracted to the seeming impossibility of making these things seem whole.
MF: How do you respond to the charge that some of your work (including the more cerebral stories here which strip away language and minimize feeling) is so inventive that it is cold, clinical, and lacking emotion? Some reviewers saw a sea-change with The Flame Alphabet in which emotion was suddenly on the agenda.
BM: I don’t respond to the charge. That’s not my job. These people are welcome to go get their emotion elsewhere. I just wish there was a machine that could accurately measure the amount of “feeling” in a piece of writing. What a reckoning that would be.
MF: Do labels like “postmodern” or “avant-garde writer” grate? In your essay “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life As We Know It” you confess to being not in “the realist camp.” You also describe yourself “as a writer of sometimes abstract, so-called experimental fiction . . .” Am I right in thinking that “so-called” suggests a categorizing you don’t fully embrace? If so, how do we classify the fiction of Ben Marcus?
BM: Just as you like, really. Naming it would essentially tell me nothing. Another hollow sound to deceive us. We already have the genre name—fiction—so librarians and booksellers know where to put it. Even that can seem unfortunate. But beyond a genre name we’re really just talking about nicknames, and people generally don’t get to choose their own. They are bestowed from without.
MF: Do writers who eschew the realist camp enjoy greater creative freedoms? Realism necessitates an adherence to certain rules and traditions. Is a writer like yourself hampered or guided by any rules or is that blank page actually carte blanche to chart your own terrain on your own terms and engage in whatever stylistic flights of fancy you want?
BM: Flights of fancy? Ouch. My least favorite genre, maybe. Never written any, that I can recall. Or if I have I wouldn’t make them public. And, for me, the system of rules that starts to loom before the first sentence is written is too vast to properly describe. But I feel it at the most visceral level, and in the end the complicated obstacles that arise as soon as any language is committed to the page make most pieces of writing unfinishable for me. The question of what comes next, word by word, and line by one, is an enormous and agonizing one. If there are no rules than any word would do, word after word.
MF: In terms of influence, how does being married to a writer inform your work?
BM: I feel fortunate to live with someone who is endlessly curious, reads everything she can get her hands on, writes and revises day and night, and strives always to do what she has not done before. It’s a great inspiration to see this enacted in front of me, particularly while I stagnate, fret, and wear out the floor with the same old dance moves year after year.
MF: At the risk of invoking your wrath, or at least eliciting a wearied sigh, what autobiographical elements, if any, do you bring to your writing? You’ve admitted that the Ben Marcus character in Notable American Women has no resemblance to Ben Marcus the writer, but what about the Fleming the creative writing professor (one of whose classes is called “Tell Don’t Show”) or Mather the harried parent?
BM: Even if the literal autobiography is minimal, the emotional autobiography is pretty absolute. I wouldn’t know any other way to write. Sometimes I might invent a fictional body to carry the real feeling. But if our dreams are our most essential autobiographical material, then how can even the strangest fiction escape the same category?
MF: What can we expect next—a new novel or another collection of stories?
BM: I have been working on a novel but am only in the very early stages, and in the meantime I may write a story or two. I am also editing a new anthology of recent American short stories.
Malcolm Forbes is a teacher and freelance critic. He was born in Edinburgh and currently lives in Berlin.
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