Rating: 4 stars
So many books these days have endless quotes from reviews that prepare you for what you’re about to read. Especially books that are classed as different, difficult, uncomfortable, and extraordinary. Such is the case with Ben Marcus’s collection of stories, Leaving the Sea.
I own this book because Jen at The Reader’s Room reviewed it earlier in the year. She disliked it so passionately that I was intrigued. I’d read The Age of Wire and String, which is a very odd book but one that I loved wholeheartedly. I couldn’t tell you what it’s about. I can only tell you that it made me feel light headed, light hearted, confused and delighted.
Jen very generously sent me the book. I’ve been waiting for a moment when it felt right to read it.
At the front of Leaving the Sea is a quote from The Washington Post’s review. It includes the line “As we make our way through this collection, we may feel as if we’re moving gradually through a dark chronology of America’s imminent social and political unravelling.” I started reading the book the day before voting began to decide the next President of the USA. The battle between Clinton and Trump has felt at times like a dark unravelling of American society and politics. So my excitement at reading something surreal that might spin my head was tempered with trepidation.
Part 1 is a set of stories about men in dysfunctional relationships, worrying about their jobs, their parenting skills, and their place in the world.
The first story, What Have You Done?, set off well. A man returns to his home town, hoping he’ll have a time of transition between the airport and the family home to prepare for time spent with his family. Unfortunately for him, his family is waiting for him at the airport. He tries to walk up to them in a cheerful way and ends up frightening his father by making him think he might hug him. He sees his father’s stricken face.
Maybe that was what happened to a man’s face after seventy: it grew helplessly honest, and today’s honest feeling was shit-stoked fear, because someone’s son had come home and his track record was, well, not the greatest.
My trepidation abated. The description of the teenage behaviour of the man’s sister and her husband, both in their late thirties, made me laugh. One single bark of laughter, because it was so hateful but so funny.
His sister and Rick whispered and cuddled and seemed to try to inseminate each other facially in the backseat while his father steered the car onto the expressway. Alicia and Rick had their whole married lives to exchange fluids and language, but for some reason they’d needed to wait until Paul was there to demonstrate how clandestine and porno they were. They had big secrets – as securely employed adults very well might. Plus they wanted Paul to know that they were vibrantly glistening sexual human beings, even in their late thirties, when most people’s genitals turn dark and small, like shrunken heads, and airport trip be damned, because they couldn’t just turn off their desire at will.
There is a feel of Chuck Pahlaniuk meets Paul Auster about the first story, which is more straightforward than I was expecting something by Ben Marcus to be.
The common theme across the four tales in this section was that the men felt inadequate in their relationships and, for three of them, as fathers. The three who are fathers are trying to find meaning in their working lives, or maybe are trying to hide from their personal lives by fixating on work. The third story is different in the narrator being ill and having to sponge off his dad. A different kind of father-child relationship.
I started reading the book on the same day I went to see Grayson Perry’s stage show about masculinity, so my mind was already on the subject of what it means to be a man in 21st century Western society.
These are men who are confused by the women they are in a relationship with, temporarily separated from them, making communication more complicated through the medium of the phone or email. The women are remote, stone faced, unreadable. Untouchable for the most part, withholding sex or, if sex happens, withholding themselves. There’s no hatred on the part of the men, just bemusement. Fascinating.
Story number four begins the slip into surrealism. There’s a hint of nightmare about Rollingwood. Again we have a man struggling with being a father. This time the child’s mother is absent because they are no longer a couple. The child is almost an homunculus. The man is in a living nightmare that verges on Kafka territory. I enjoyed the tension and horror in his situation and his denial of it.
Part 2 consists of two very brief interviews that seem to be set in a near future where a cult leader tries to encourage people to remain in an infantile state, kicking against the ‘Matures’, and another interviewee talks about his theories of survival in a period referred to as ‘the hardship’. Read the night before Donald Trump was elected to the office of President of the USA, they were both salutary observations on the way politics and society seem to be going. Overgrown babies sulking and acting up when they don’t get their own way, and rejecting facts and evidence in favour of conspiracy theories and internet memes when making decisions.
Part 3 opens with Watching Mysteries with My Mother, in which the narrator ponders the likelihood of his mother dying in the last 45 minutes of the day. He goes off on some fabulous tangents, my favourite being about strangers exhorting dying people to fight on which leads him to the kind of bizarre conclusion that makes sense despite the premise being preposterous.
Why would a stranger stop in my room, stand at my bed, and exhort me to live? What kind of stranger does things like that? And if the answer is a good kind of stranger, I must wonder if it is then my duty, not tonight, because I am busy, but sometime soon, to enter a hospital at night and find a patient alone in his or her room, preferably a patient on the brink of death, and urge them to fight, and fight hard? I should strive to be a good stranger, is that not correct?
This narrator makes me think of Ignatius J Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, but more mellow. Much more mellow. His absurdist flights of fancy also put me in mind of Daniel Kitson’s monologues.
This section is a two-hander, about a single man’s relationship with his parents. The second story is another near future near dystopia, and I wanted it to be a novel. Marcus drops us in at the start of some kind of emergency, leaving hints about what might be happening, developing the sense of something not being right when a woman drops dead and the paramedics won’t touch her. I found the tension between the narrator and his parents comedically accurate, I think because I’m the age I am and recall how bewildered my parents were by the way modern life played out. I recall my thrumming exasperation with them, always under the surface, wishing they would get it so I wouldn’t have to be responsible for explaining it all, helping them navigate it.
Part 4 is a single story, The Father Costume. I found this one more of a struggle. Do I mean struggle, though? It wasn’t difficult, but I did have to dwell longer to allow the nuance to penetrate. It is a description of a father-son relationship rendered in abstract terms. It talks about the nature of fatherhood being a form of ritual, clothed in particular fabrics, maintained by superstitions, something that is eventually passed on. It considers the truism that we all eventually turn into our parents, those people who mystify us because we don’t know their inner workings until it’s too late and we start replicating them. It considers the feeling we sometimes have as adult children that we are both dragged through life by our parents while at the same time guiding and supporting them. It’s possibly also the narrative of an abused child trying to speak the truth of his situation at the same time as hiding from it. The whole thing made me feel sad, but I don’t know why. Perhaps the sense of a loss of innocence that came across in the rhythms of the words. Perhaps the sense of a subtle cruelty being imposed by a person with power over those he was supposed to protect. It might also be political allegory, about the nature of power and belief systems and the way leaders communicate and obfuscate in order to draw people blindly along with them, donning costumes that signify their mood, using lenses to distort perception. Whatever its meaning, I liked it in a vaguely disturbed way. I liked it because it had no clear narrative and I was free to interpret it however I wanted, regardless of the author’s intention in writing it.
In part 5 are five tales told from an unknown future, where language has changed and emotion has been removed from relationships. The style is more familiar as Marcus, it compares well with The Age of Wire and String.
First Love is another abstract piece, this time about pairing up. It presents the male protagonist as removed from the process, detached and observing, reflecting on the language that used to be employed to describe the human body and the action of loving. A couple of passages stood out for me:
Whenever she kissed me, she was prying for secrets.
In truth, every man’s body is an announcement of a future disappearance. Just by being in the room with her, I was foreshadowing our separation.
In a relationship every person gives a gift, usually by leaving something out. The best and most cherished gift is to give her the first clue as to why she should begin plotting her escape.
There is something in this tale about the differences between men and women, and what the male perspective might be, that I was caught by, but it never really solidified into anything graspable. It ended up being silly, but at least in a way that made me smile rather than want to skip past it.
The four subsequent stories follow on in similar style, with a narrator explaining how things are now and contextualising the action described with how things used to be.
This section of the book holds a jaundiced view of relationships: the motivations behind looking for and entering into a relationship; the difficulties in maintaining it; the inevitable transience; the lack of feeling required because the collapse of the relationship is so anticipated, even before it starts. The dispassionate style of the narrative, and the sense of being in a future world suits these stories of failure and indifference.
There were some more good lines in Against Attachment.
I was fortunate to find a person who would solve my solitude … My intention had not been to find her, for I had been busy being lonely with someone else.
Although we pretended to choose whom we would destroy in the name of a relationship, we were instead forced at each other, feigning admiration for the way our bodies lacked fat, hair, and color.
Against Attachment was my favourite tale in this section. Its premise is the feigned indifference and practiced self-sufficiency the protagonists wrap themselves in as protection in the war of courtship. This attitude of not wanting to admit that they want to be with someone ultimately becomes reliance. They become bound to the person they’re pretending not to really care about. It made me think of a song called You’ll Always Walk Alone. The singer protests his independence and indifference before closing with the lines:
And alone every night you walk through my mind
There we go you and I in tandem all the time
Our covers blown
Now it’s all talk
How you always walk alone
In the story there is a similar sentiment:
… a battle was afoot, employing weaponry such as indifference and laughter, kissing and ambivalence … and waiting to see who would have the honor of starting the first argument. The goal was not to admit that we each suspected a future dependence upon the other. We commenced a theater of attractive indifference in order to seal our obligation to each other. We engaged in a strenuous denial of need.
The title story I found difficult because I am still in a fug of anxiety and dissatisfaction and this story spoke to me of the same things. When you don’t care what you eat, when you feel no desire, when waking up is full of panic, when your apathy is catching, when you try to avoid catching other people’s eye, when all you want is to run away, walk into the wood, disappear, start again as someone else. I liked it because of its lowness of mood and because of its stream of consciousness rhythm. I liked it because I could lose myself in it. But it was difficult.
The final story in part 6 brings the collection full circle. We are back in a recognisable reality, with a man trying to avoid human contact because its mundanity makes him want to die, but unable to resist the unspoken call of an unavailable woman as she wafts past him in the office. There is an undercurrent of misogyny in this tale. As much as he hates his fellow human beings, the narrator hates women, and one particular woman, more. He hates in a way that is bound up with desire and inadequacy. He hates because he wants, and thinks he can’t have. He hates because he loathes himself. This misogyny didn’t make me angry, like other misogynistic writing makes me angry, because it is observation of a male state of being, rather than the true outpourings of a woman hater. It gave me an insight into how the male mind might work in a given situation.
There is also anti-Semitism in this tale, dropped casually into the narrator’s thought process, with a smirk on his lips in acknowledgement of this not being acceptable even within the confines of his own head. Even though Marcus tries to turn it on its head by revealing the narrator to be Jewish and have him claim his apparent blaming of Jews as love for them, this brief element of the story disgusted me. Perhaps more than it usually does because of the neo-fascist nature of the newly elected US President’s campaign and the EU referendum campaign of the Leave supporters in the UK, and the consequent fear I feel that we are falling into another version of 1933 Germany. I despise all bigotry rooted in suspicion of The Other, because it’s lazy thinking, indeed it’s lack of thinking. It’s an excuse not to take your share of responsibility in the good functioning of the world we live in, blaming it on those we don’t feel kinship with. I despise anti-Semitism differently to other bigotry, though, because I grew up with a disgustingly anti-Semitic dad. I had that poison deliberately poured into my ears from the age he thought I might be able to grasp it until he died. Perhaps that makes me hypersensitive.
There is a lot of talk at present about normalising the unacceptable, because of the need people have to rationalise Trump’s election. There might be a danger in Marcus writing like this, because in giving an insight into why men hate women, and why people have an irrational hatred of Jews, it gives grounds for sympathy and begins that normalisation process. It isn’t normal to hate someone for biological reasons, from any angle of biology – gender, skin colour, sexuality, physicality. It isn’t normal to equate a nationality or a culture with greed and covert control of the world. We shouldn’t ever accept it simply because it’s easier for us to get on with our lives by doing so.
There were moments in this story that made me laugh as well, though. The different endpoints his fevered imagination brought him to, the fantasies about how he might engineer a sexual encounter with the woman, and his inevitable inadequacy.
This whole collection of stories is a peek into the male condition. As a woman, often confused/bemused/amused by the way the men I know behave, it was a really interesting book. I want a man I know to read it and tell me whether he finds it accurate.