Book review: Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus

From the naturalistic to the experimental, this new collection of short stories prove an enigmatic author’s ability to shape-shift.

By Ben Marcus. Knopf, $27

Ben Marcus is one of the most talented, if inscrutable, prose stylists writing today. While narrative cohesion has never been his priority, his metaphor-heavy riffs and dense, dystopian dreamscapes constantly push the limits of what language can (and, for that matter, should) do. In his last book, The Flame Alphabet, Marcus tried with mixed success to hang his usual amorphous pontifications on a conventional structure for the length of a novel. In his latest collection, Leaving the Sea, he wisely keeps these things separated, and the result is a wide-ranging, singular meditation on parenthood, relationships, language and the end of the world.

With the first story, “What Have You Done?,” Marcus shows that he can do “normal” as well as anyone. In it, former black sheep Paul goes to a family reunion but can’t shake his reputation as a problem child. Things get a little stranger with “My Views on the Darkness,” written in the form of an interview with a man who has taken to living underground as the only viable survival strategy. Eventually, there are experimental stories, including “The Father Costume,” in which a typical sentence reads, “Where whole grammars were off-limits, due to cloth shortages.” Regardless of idiom, however, Marcus tackles deep-held, universal terrors and anxieties in his singular way.