Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

"Leaving the sea" by Ben Marcus (Granta, 2014)

Stories from Granta, Harper's, New Yorker, Tin House, etc.

In "What have you done?" a 40 year old son returns to the parental room for a re-union, playing the role he's played for years (sad, fat loner) even though he's married with a young child. When he tries to tell his close family the news they thing he's lying. In "I can say many nice things" Fleming, a university writing tutor, is running a course on a cruise ship -

  • "now it was Fleming's duty to string critical latticework between them, ricocheting between praise and criticism until everyone had gotten their money's worth"
  • "Slowly the workshop roles emerged. There were the miniaturists who wanted to look at a certain line on page 5 and wonder if maybe it shouldn't be airlifted earlier ... There was the person who said that the story really began halfway down page 2. Apparently these people were everywhere, even on boats. ... there was [Carl] who confessed that this story really wasn't his thing so it wasn't even fair for him to try to evaluate it ... Whatever Carl's real thing was would be a closely guarded secret until he turned in his own story, and everyone - or so it usually went - once they saw it, would strain to detect the slightest difference between Carl's writing and the work of his peers he'd spent so much effort distancing himself from"

The other two stories in section 1 have less interesting plots and fewer highlights. Forget section 2. I liked "Watching Mysteries with My Mother" - a son speculates on when his mother will die, while thinking about TV shows. "The Loyalty Protocol" feel too long. A son of old parents is caught up in social situations that he struggles with but whose rules we don't understand - Kafka updated to the PC age. "The Father Costume" reminds me of "A martian writes a postcard home" and high SF. Here are some extracts -

  • "My brother spoke a language called Forecast. It consisted of sounds he barked into a stippled leather box. When my father wrapped my brother's hands in cotton waffling, my brother could tap out a low-altitude language on the floor, short thuds of speech that my father held his listening jar to. On those evenings when the sky was stretched too tight and he birds struck amongst it like pebbles on our roof, my brother slept off his Forecast expulsions in a sling hanging from our door" (p.179)
  • "My father woke early and opened four jars in the doorway. He tuned the radio dial to Englishville and we heard a series of recent horizon songs made with a slow, old-fashioned breathing style. In between the music, one of the more famous years was being described by a girl whose voice had to project through a wooden mouth" (p.181)

"First Love" isn't so different -

  • "it is imperative to keep your person clean and keep his tank and limbs filled with the appropriate fluid, seasonally correct and rich in emotion, to be sure his shoes are hard on top and solid for the long haul, to mind that your own person is posture perfect and can aim his body true, accounting for the possible refractions of light that occur between the people to today, also known as new wolves.
    The shovels we use to cleave the air in two - and possibly reveal a person we might fail against - were once abbreviated as hands. This was when we had two shovels each
    " (p.199)
  • "There are men blessed by water, whom women cannot see. This is the only favor water can grant, to cloak our mistakes by adding a layer of reflection to our skin, which helps other people take more responsibility for us, once they see how horrible they can look when we reflect them" (p.202)

The pieces in section 5 also have a poetic style - e.g.

  • "Sometimes instead of blankets he would throw another person into the room ahead of him, which was referred to as "turning on the light." These people were said to have a blinding effect, particularly if they arrived unannounced and appeared to be strangers. Loud people have thin, hollow bones" (p.210)
  • "We met inside the clear globules of fat known as air. There was no milk in the room. Swimming skills were not required. There were no weapons. A pocket-sized emissary name "Joe" introduced us. I did not love myself." (p.218)
  • "The love between two people has never been stored in a vial and sold in a shop, yet sometimes she and I, the two of us, on the threshold of no longer caring for each other, a precipice called the Walking Moment, lay together in the bed shaking at each other's bodies as though we only had water inside us that could be easily poured away. We used a wringing technique called a hug" (p.219)

"The Moors", in a section by itself, didn't appeal to me.

Other reviews

  • Stuart Kelly (Ben Marcus is one of the most stunningly original and profoundly unsettling writers of his generation. ... Two stories stand out: the title story, "Leaving The Sea", most of which is one self-justifying and self-cancelling sentence; and the final piece, "The Moors")
  • Randy Boyagoda (a relentlessly sardonic and cynical read that is ambitiously experimental in style ... Several of them feature middle-aged men stuck in failure, whether in their relationships with parents, partners and young children, or in their working lives. Efforts to break free only worsen these dismal situations. ... Leaving the Sea would be a very good work of conventional literary fiction if it simply offered such smart and tart observations. Yet Marcus has little interest in conventions, except to undermine them ... the middle section of the collection showcases Marcus’s skill and interest in playing with language and storytelling structures. Alas, the skill is greater than the interest it generates ... the collection’s closing story, “The Moors”, is more than worth the uneven reading experience that precedes it.)
  • Jim Krusoe (Marcus presents a deeper range of identification for the reader, more emotional complexity, but still plenty of the chair-gripping alienation that marked his previous books. ... What are the unspoken rules of Marcus’s world? For starters I would offer the following: 1) Things are always pretty bad; 2) Women are always superior to men; 3) Fathers never cease to be scary; 4) Practically the only food anyone eats is potatoes, possibly because while they’re nourishing, potatoes aren’t much fun; 5) One’s choice is either to flee and hope to find shelter, or to stay put and just hope.)
  • Alexandria Symonds (He is marvelous on the level of the sentence and in his depiction of flawed human logic. ... Mr. Marcus is at his best when this poetic instinct for language converges with his steady and sharp sense of plotting.)
  • Jeff Turrentine (To read “Leaving the Sea” beyond “The Loyalty Protocol” is to penetrate the thin membrane that separates Marcus’s inventive — if still fundamentally conventional — storytelling from his declared commitment to literary experimentalism. ... With the exception of the excellent final story, “The Moors” — which echoes George Saunders’s office-space tragicomedies — the second half of “Leaving The Sea” comes across largely as fiction for the Age of Theory: narratives constructed in anticipation of their own academic deconstruction.)

No comments:

Post a Comment