Leaving the Sea with Ben Marcus: A Report from the Mountain

The Shape of the Mountain

Ben Marcus’ new collection Leaving the Sea is something like a mountain. Its fifteen stories are divided between six sections that roughly form a gradient of challenges to climb. It opens with four approachable stories (three of which appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s), but from there the terrain changes quickly. The brief interviews that follow serve as the manifestos of two extremists, and up in the thinning air of section four waits “The Father Costume,” with its strange world of fabrics and sound. The apex can be found in section five, which opens with this cheeky and inventive line from “First Love”: “I could not sleep until I had labored through a regular lust application performed with motion, gesture, and languageflower.”

Leaving the Sea follows Marcus’ acclaimed 2012 novel, The Flame Alphabet, and in many ways continues its investigation of parenthood and family, of sound and language. Yet perhaps the most notable cohesion rests with architecture—the underlying structure of families, marriage, cities, bodies, and time. Set on cruise ships, in the darkness of shared hostel dorms, near lonely coffee carts in vast gymnasiums, or hidden in the depths of the earth, the locations generate an important pressure.

Marcus’ ability to manage everything from the larger formal constructions to the shape of the scenes and sentences is impressive, but not surprising. He has long advocated literature that spurs and enlarges our desires without seeming “desperate to please us,” as he put it in a 2005 Harper’s essay on experimental fiction (and Jonathan Franzen), and this collection embodies that philosophy.

As I read, it was hard not to feel accompanied by Marcus in some way. As if the engineer of the mountain (with its peak reaching into a language-fog that’s both striking and a bit intimidating) was also a guide eager for me to become the kind of reader who’s willing to climb. Someone willing to take the test against his “ideal reader” (another idea outlined in the Harper’s article). Someone who “would cough up a thimble of fine gray powder at the end of the reading session, and she could use this mineral-rich substance to compost her garden.”

What was there to do but put on my gear and follow? To listen. To take a few notes. And now, back in the safety of my home after a long expedition, I submit this report from the field.


Bodies on the Mountain

We find many bodies on the mountain. The first four stories follow men grasping for a way to live within themselves, to make sense of the shape of their lives. Their unseemly interactions and thoughts will give some readers pause or even cause them to walk away before the climb has begun. But the off-putting characteristics that drive the first section establish a central challenge of the mountain: how to convert that dark, physical pressure into a complex form of empathy.

It begins with “What Have You Done?”, where Paul flies home to Cleveland, riding the line between self-restraint and setting “fire to his whole life.” The violence of his language gives an urgency to otherwise mundane actions. When Paul sees his family grouped at the airport, that typical domestic welcoming scene, they’re not even human to him. They stand close enough that he could “buck-shot the three of them down with a single pull.” Back at the house, close details of Paul’s childhood room draw more out of him. “It was hard not to realize what kind of kid his parents wished they’d had, and when he thought about that kind of kid it was tempting for Paul to want to track, hunt, and eat the little thing.” As he reflects on this aggression, the things that “made him take the low road so hard and fast,” the answer he finds is haunting. It’s everything he’s known: “The table, his room, that red chair, the house, the whole city of Cleveland.”

“I Can Say Nice Things” gives us Fleming, a softer character who’s equally limited to his body and station in life. As the creative writing teacher is pulled away from his wife and child to run a workshop on a cruise ship, his physical constraints help us understand his larger struggles. Fleming is often tucked away in an awful interior cabin or locked in a workshop of young writers. Even at lunch, as he slips beneath shade alongside the kiddie pool with a remarkably sad piece of chocolate pie, he can’t truly be alone. There’s nowhere to hide on the ship, and Fleming wants “a different body to wear around when he [isn’t] in the workshop.” It’s understandable, then, that the story finds an ending under an open sky, the same lonely sky that can be found from any point on the mountain. Fleming concludes that “The dark night was a kind of room, and it would be better than where he’d been.”

Going a step further, Julian in “The Dark Arts” is at war with his ailing body, an auto-immune disease. In response, he progressively detaches himself from love. And Mather, the protagonist of “Rollingwood,” spends the story clutching his son, tending to the boy’s cough, worrying about the state of his fragile body while trying not to preserve his job. It’s hard not to look around and feel trapped. Section one feels grounded and tense and emotionally isolated. It’s no wonder that all four of the stories must conclude with a turn of tense, a gesture towards the future.


Families Near the Summit

In section two we meet a man who shouldn’t exist on a mountain. “My Views on the Darkness” sketches the bleak circumstances at sea level that made him leave his life and family to go underground, towards “high solidity, which often occurs at extremely low altitudes.”

Our altitude troubles him. In an interview, he says that “Altitude itself has been fanatically idealized since early mythology.” He doesn’t understand why we’d take the risk to be here. If we mention beauty, he scoffs. “The beauty of flight,” he says, “the freedom of space, the supposed poetry of birds: glories or cautions?” This is a man who puts a high premium on life. He will sacrifice anything for it. He’s a rock polished hard by life. It’s hard not to wonder, as you stare at him, what you’ve sacrificed for your own stability.

But we must carry on, push our weight against the cold air into section three. The captivating “Watching Mysteries with My Mother” rises above the pitfalls of dying mother stories and delivers as a satisfying shift. The character’s fixation with his mother produces thoughtful yet rambling passages, and it’s hard to tell how best to get your footing. But near the end, the shape and intent of the story is justified with this tender turn:

Years from now someone might ask me what I was doing when my mother died and I would have to answer that I was home, writing […] What I will be able to say, without lying, is that when my mother died I was at home thinking about her, since in order to write about my mother I must first think about her, and in that sense she is very much in my thoughts.

Higher still we climb, and soon enough we’ve found the summit. Section five. “First Love” lives up to its place at the top when it speaks to family. The story shows off what Marcus’ stories do so well—placing a turn on cold images that open them up to something terrifying and new:

In some American dialects, the word family means “scatter.” Having a family increases the number of targets, cuts down on the father’s risk. With more people for the sniper to shoot at, the father has a better chance of getting out alive. His wife and children function as his bodyguards. This is also probably why relationships are referred to as “bulletproof vests.”

In this passage, Marcus seems to be motioning out to the view below. Pointing back down at the base of the mountain, to that early moment when Paul first sees his family in “What Have You Done?” When they stand at the airport close enough to “buck-shot the three of them down with a single pull.” Here, at the top of the mountain, we’re again looking down the barrel at family.


Writers Talk Writing on the Mountain

At night on the mountain we think of our families, our cities, the unshakable chill in our bones. But it’s clear that the shape and construction of the mountain is always on Marcus’ mind. At every quiet moment, he’ll turn to it to keep our minds busy.

It’s inevitable that Fleming, the creative writing teacher in “I Can Say Many Nice Things,” thinks about his place in the story. The gesture feels honest and inevitable, and in section one, it notes that echo. It draws attention to the creation of stories, to the believability of Fleming’s existence:

The sky, the whole night, his conversations. These things did not fucking ring true anymore, they needed work. What happened to him needed to be revised until he could find it believable. Or, he needed to be revised. Fleming. He needed to change himself so what was real did not seem so alien and wrong.

But I’m even more attentive to this talk of story when it creeps its way into the frame. In “Watching Mysteries with My Mother,” the story completes a long shift that finally turns to a theatric  view of their own situation. In an elaborate scene, an imagined group of paid companions that has been expanding for about a page crowds “together looking in the window at mother and son, eating dinner in front of the television set, wondering how he could do this to her, leave her alone like that. What kind of son is he?”


A Note to Climbers

Marcus travels by a philosophy that’s slipped into the interview “On Not Growing Up”: “You don’t map a route that has been spoiled by the progress of others.” The variety of textures and shapes within Leaving the Sea is pleasing, and perhaps this range comes in part to the length of time between the creation of the stories, which were published over the past thirteen years in magazines ranging from The New Yorker to Tin House and Artspace Books. I’d expect some readers to become a bit frustrated with this collection in a prolonged sitting. It requires frequent recalibrations of place and a patience for settling into not only new worlds, but new ways to read its language.

But if you’re up for a climb this year, Ben Marcus is the guy you’ll want leading your expedition. His rules are tough, and the mountain isn’t always forgiving, but you come out with something new. Even if you begrudged packing up your bags and winter coat, the view up there is undeniably stunning. And in section five, when you’re a bit overworked and looking at your sore hands, Marcus will call you over. He’ll kneel through the opening line of “First Love” to show you a little blooming “languageflower” poking through the snow. And you’ll nod with him, seeing the kind of beauty all this effort has earned you.

Andrew Bales' interviews and reviews have appeared in PANK, MAKE: A Chicago Literary Magazine, Mojo, and elsewhere. He lives in Wichita, Kansas, where he serves as an Associate Editor for NANO Fiction and an Assistant Editor for American Short Fiction.