LEAVING THE SEA: Stories. By Ben Marcus. Knopf. 272 pages. $25.95.
Perhaps Ben Marcus is an acquired taste. But you have to work for it, more than you might wish.
To his champions, and they are legion, Marcus is an incisive, slyly perceptive interpreter of the modern malaise, one of our most gifted practitioners of the short story. Certainly, he owns commendable powers of observation, wed to a taste for revelation through the absurd.
The 15 stories collected in "Leaving the Sea" are, if nothing else, audacious. There's lots of verbal pyrotechnics, inventive (if highly eccentric) use of language, clever flourishes and, every now and then, a stylistic or cognitive leap that is the product of an original mind.
One feels admiring and perplexed at the same time. Admiring, because Marcus is exceptionally intelligent. Perplexed, because so few of these pieces are actually stories in the strict sense. They read more like painfully self-aware academic exercises, inscrutable poetry for which you can't quite crack the code, and, after a time, no longer want to try.
Typical of his prose are passages such as this: "We met outside the clear globules of fat known as air. There was no milk in the room. Swimming skills were not required. There were no weapons. A pocket-sized emissary named "Joe" introduced us. I did not love myself. ... She would chop at my husk, and I would begin publishing my name inside her mouth."
Hmm. While some of Marcus' tales, like "I Can Say Nice Things," offer a more straightforward narrative and are wryly or corrosively comic, others suggest experiment for its own sake. Tediously so. Rarely do they possess anything so pedestrian as a developed character. The reader often finishes the more obscure entries only to pause and ask, "What the devil was that about?"
Michael Chabon compares Marcus' protagonists to the "insanely sane" narrators of J.G. Ballard, and doubtless one could make a case for it. But Ballard, though bleakly melancholy, was agreeably grounded, more interested in telling a story than dancing about a subject, doing literary loop-de-loops and showing off.
Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.