Leaving the Sea: Stories by Ben Marcus, Knopf, 271 pages ($25.95). Ben Marcus’ 2005 essay in Harper’s Magazine was cheerfully called “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen and Life as We Know It.” In it, he notes that “literary language which might come in complex and challenging guises and which can at times seem put to uses so foreign that it resembles the dialect of a new tribe of people” nevertheless is capable of showing us “unprecedented new worlds of feeling and thought” that “transfix and mesmerize.”
That, he says, is contrary to what literary fiction readers have been told by the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Yardley, Dale Peck and Tom Wolfe. Which, to Marcus, means that “the true elitists in the literary world … are the ones who have become contemptuous of any literary ambition whatsoever.”
All of which – even though it’s a credo 9 years old – might well terrify an innocent reader of Marcus’ new collection of stories “Leaving the Sea” or his extraordinary last novel “The Flame Alphabet.”
And then, in the first sentence of the first story, one reads “literary language” as elemental in narrative as this: “When Paul’s flight landed in Cleveland, they were waiting for him. They’d probably arrived early, set up camp right where passengers float off the escalators scanning for family.” No member of Oprah’s book club would have been the slightest bit put off. We’re not talking about Gaddis or Joyce here.
While Ben Marcus is not exactly a candidate for any counterpart of Oprah’s once dominant book club, he is a marvelous writer – funny, wild and, yes, exhilarating – who by no means requires the literary equivalent of preventative injections before one voyages along with him.
Yes, the title story is one long sentence and “I Can Say Many Nice Things” is about a writer’s workshop, but many of these exciting expansions of readers’ imaginations begin with the most quotidian of subjects – office, family, trips, etc. He is, at the moment, as close as anyone we have to what Barthelme once was – an experimental artist for the most general of readers.
– Jeff Simon