The adjective “surreal” has, over time, come to mean “unfathomable” or “not of this world” or just “really, really freaky.” But it’s worth noting that the early surrealist writers weren’t interested in summoning strangeness for strangeness’s sake. Their goal was rather to discomfit readers in the way that our most vivid dreams do, through the juxtaposition of realistic yet unrelated images: “two realities, more or less distant, brought together,” in the words of poet Pierre Reverdy.
The best stories in Ben Marcus’s new collection of short fiction, “Leaving the Sea,” are surreal in this original sense of the word. They seem powered by the electrostatic charge that results whenever the texture of the familiar is abraded by some alien, highly resistant material. These 15 tales are by turns tender, funny, heartbreaking, frightening and occasionally overweening. But even when he’s overestimating his reader’s patience or fortitude, Marcus is nothing less than fully engaged in an artistic enterprise that the surrealists would have authorized: injecting into our recognizable world just enough weirdness to make readers second-guess their senses.
This destabilizing weirdness starts off subtly in the opening story, “What Have You Done?” So invested are we in tracking the shaky progress of an ill-tempered man who has reluctantly returned home for a family reunion that it almost slips right by us when he pauses to regard the newest architectural additions to the downtown Cleveland skyline: “They were tall and thin and black, hooked at their tops, and were either sheathed entirely in charcoal-tinted glass or simply windowless.”
Even those who don’t think to scribble a question mark in the margin after reading that sentence may wonder whether there’s some sort of connection between those hellish, hook-topped skyscrapers and the middle-of-the-night knock at the door that resonates throughout the next story. “I Can Say Many Nice Things” begins as wry, spot-on satire. Its setting is a creative-writing seminar offered to (hilariously untalented) cruise-ship passengers as an edifying onboard activity. But mid-story, a crew member begins barging in on sleeping passengers to check them against the ship’s manifest, without explaining why. After this point, Marcus’s straightforward narrative sensibility begins tacking toward the mysterious Don DeLillo Islands, where paranoia reigns supreme and light humor goes to harden.
If these details sound more at home in dystopian sci-fi than in a pair of otherwise naturalistic short stories set in present-day Cleveland and aboard a tacky cruise ship, they’re only the first of many such dissonant chords Marcus strikes. Indeed, 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 unraveling. And though there’s nothing to indicate that these texts are linked schematically, it’s hard not to register them as creepy snapshots from some pre-apocalyptic Instagram feed.
By the time we reach the book’s midpoint, the seeds of dread that Marcus has planted early on have blossomed into full-blown fleurs du mal. We’ve encountered the sad-sack protagonist of “Rollingwood,” whose string of personal misfortunes is so devastatingly complete that it almost suggests a memo has gone out to his ex-girlfriend, his boss, the people in his carpool, even his sickly child, declaring him anathema. And we’ve had time to process the pair of brief Q&A-style interviews with two highly educated, supremely self-satisfied sociopaths who justify their withdrawal from humanity by quoting radical social theorists and couching their monstrousness in magazine-ready pull-quotes. (“To me it’s beautiful that our survival strategies are wonderfully diverse and not all of us can succeed.”)
We’ve also shivered along with Edward, the hapless inhabitant of an America perpetually on Red Alert. In the volunteer-staffed police state of “The Loyalty Protocol,” the terrified citizens have graduated from their private paranoia to organize an endless series of mandatory-attendance emergency scenarios, essentially just “drilling for escape day and night.”
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 complex and difficult novels such as “Notable American Women” (2002) and “The Flame Alphabet” (2012), he earned the devotion of avant-garde readers nostalgic for an era when William Gaddis, Robert Coover and Kathy Acker still drove the conversation about the novel’s many formal and stylistic possibilities.
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. Indeed, if you are planning to go the full distance with Marcus, it would be nice to have an MFA to show for all your hard work at the end. If you’re not reading these self-consciously difficult explorations of epistemic modality (or whatever) for class credit, then maybe it’s best to think of them as a literary tax on those of us who don’t know our Derridas from our derrieres. Marcus writes so well that it’s still probably a tax worth paying.
Turrentine, a frequent Book World reviewer, is an editor at OnEarth magazine.
LEAVING THE SEA
By Ben Marcus
Knopf. 271 pp. $25.95