I remember learning once in a psychology class about a study where participants were given a bag of multicolored marbles: If the subject blindly selected his favorite color of marble on the first try, he was given $20 dollars. When asked to guess the likelihood of this favorable outcome, participants were, on the whole, unrealistically optimistic in their predictions; time and again, they expected things would go their way, when the odds were, in fact, that they would not. A narrator in Ben Marcus’s story “Watching Mysteries with My Mother” notices a similar trend in the families of individuals with terminal illness — they insist that their loved one is “a fighter”;she will be the one to “beat the odds.” But of course the odds, if they are really odds, hold us all equally in their power, and they can never be beaten; they remain.
The moral, perhaps, would be that life is often more arbitrary and unpleasant than we would like to think, which is possibly the only certitude standing behind the characters of Marcus’s new collection of stories, “Leaving the Sea,” released this January by Knopf Publishing. Marcus’s 15 middle-aged male protagonists — unlike the participants in that hypothetical psychological study — seem painfully aware of the fact that their lives are not at all turning out as they would have hoped.
Marcus, the author of three novels, including “The Flame Alphabet,” and the winner of three Pushcart Prizes, finds his own place among such bleakly sardonic storytellers as Kafka, Beckett, and the Coen brothers. His characters are often pathetic, utterly failing to communicate, and disgusted with the shortcomings of language and of their own bodies. If they happen to fall in love, it is “through several mutual misunderstandings.” The stories begin in a familiar and disappointing modern world — a divorced dad finds his cubicle at work overtaken by interns, a middle-aged son watches British mystery-dramas on PBS and cannot forget about his mother’s mortality. Marcus’ voice feels grippingly vivid and current; he doesn’t try anything fancy with his sentences, and still manages, here and there, to point out small sensations of daily existence that we might never before have noticed.
As his stories progress, the recognizable world and the forms of language itself begin to dissolve, and the characters waver between struggling to survive and wishing to disappear. The reader is left alone without sign posts, only grounded in the recurrent rhythms of the stories, and in the glimpses of suggestion which make these wildly violent dystopias seem strangely similar to the reality we swim in every day. We know nothing about the future, the characters of one story remember from a sort of gymnasium cum bomb-shelter — we know very little for sure at all.
The reader is as lost as the characters, and often frustrated and exhausted by the tediums of the every day and the devastating awareness that human life might be nothing more than a mistake. “I would have gills,” thinks one of the narrators, “if I were something better that had never tried to leave the sea.” But one keeps reading, I think, because every so often, even as Thomas inches for what feels like a thousand years worth of over-wrought anxiety down the office hallway towards the beautiful, indifferent colleague at the coffee cart — every so often, one miraculously finds a moment of peace.
Alison Lewis is a student of English and American Literatures at Middlebury College.