Published by Knopf in January, 2014, the short story collection from Ben Marcus’ “Leaving the Sea” is for readers who appreciate the dystopian universes, lapidary prose, caustic irony, and terrifying realism made famous by authors like George Saunders. Many of the sentences that make up the stories are constructed in such a way that they are stories in themselves. Stories within the stories.
The stories in this book are certainly not light or easy reading–but they are well worth the effort. The moral twists, intricacies of relationships, fear of death, survivor-guilt, self-guilt and other emotions that author writes about forces you into contemplating the shared human experience before you even realize what you’re analyzing.
I thoroughly enjoyed the entire collection but there were three stories in particular that really stood out.
Watching Mysteries with My Mother opens with the line “I don’t think my mother will die today.” You have to admire an author who opens a story with such a sneakily crafted inversion Camus’ famous opening to “The Stranger.” This particular story is a meditation of death that somehow manages to come off as almost normal while making Camus’ writing seem almost cheerful. Quite honestly, the way the story is crafted and the range of emotions and alienation you go through while reading it is astounding.
What Have You Done? features the hyper-caustic character Paul Berger returning to his family after a long absence. His family has such low expectations from him (regarding whatever offenses it was he committed in the past) make it impossible for Paul to convince them of the happy and successful life he has created for himself. There is a thread of humor throughout the story that offsets such a tragic human emotion as what we feel when we disappoint the ones we love.
I Can Say Many Nice Things focuses on creative writing teacher Fleming who is trying with pathetic futility to revamp his teaching career by offering a creative writing workshop to students on a cruise. This is one of the most comical of the stories in the collection and it is also one of the most surprising. In most cases, sarcastic humor writing is full of stereotyped characters and flat story lines–this is not the case with masterfully crafted prose of Ben Marcus.
The characters in “Leaving the Sea” are fully developed and well-rounded and the stories resonate with something deep inside you. I have no choice but to give this short story collection five stars and applaud Marcus as one of my new favorite short story authors.