On Ben Marcus’s Leaving the Sea
A confession: I enjoyed every one of the stories in Ben Marcus’s Leaving the Sea. A second confession: I fully understood none of them. Facilitating this unlikely simultaneity in one’s audience is, I think, the hallmark of a great writer. And Marcus accomplishes the feat the same way so many of my favorite working authors do, pairing the bleakest absurdity with genuine sentiment, high-flying intellectualism with everyday deadpan, the result of which is a set of stories that delighted me as often as they dangled their deeper truths just out of reach.
The final two stories of the collection, the titular “Leaving the Sea” and “The Moors,” showcase Marcus’s talents as well as any other. The former consists entirely of one paragraph, very nearly one sentence, and amounts to a sustained protest against the contemporary Western upper-middle-class human condition. It’s this story, especially when considered alongside some of its weirder, less obviously fictional bedfellows, that feels the most like a continuation of The Flame Alphabet, his 2012 novel, in which language becomes toxic. In one of the last lines of the story, he states what might be the thesis of the story, and of the collection as a whole: “A new sort of quiet was required.” Every story has been told, every epiphany inadvertently experienced. Language, if not dead, is spent, its veins of workable ore depleted, its meaning transformed into moldering words in a musty tome. It is time to begin again.
And in “The Moors,” the very next story, the final note of Leaving the Sea, he does just that, showing the way forward. Or at least a way forward. In this tale, Marcus does his best Saunders (as he often does) and presents us with a hero whom, were we to run into him on the street, we would probably have to pretend not to hold in contempt. Over forty-odd pages, over a chronology of perhaps five minutes in all, he lingers behind his coworker while in line for a pull of drip coffee. Lost in thought, he swings wildly between self-pity and arrogance, envying his neurosis-free colleagues while also holding them in contempt for their ignorance. Only gradually is the reason for his general awfulness made clear: he has a family at home, a wife and a son, and something is wrong. And not until the final page do we get to see him at home, to witness what it is that’s wrong, in what is probably Marcus at his most poignant.
There is a heart at the center of all Marcus’s stories, blood beneath his surface brilliance. This is the real reason anyone reads anything, I think. And it’s why you should read Leaving the Sea.
On Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole
A trick I have yet to pull off: the crafting of a thing that is more than the sum of its parts. At this point in my development, every sentence I write is one I might later reread with a small thrill. But the drop-off as my units of language grow larger is steep. Perhaps half of my paragraphs qualify as a success; one in ten sections of a longer story accomplish their intended effect. And as for the stories I have managed to tell to an audience wider than myself, I have only three times done what I set out to do. (See the wonderful Juked, X-Ray, and Ghost Parachute for these.) And as for novels, I have one. And its center does not, or has yet to, hold.
A thing that is more than the sum of its parts: The Hole, Hiroko Oyamada’s acclaimed 2013 novella, translated in 2020 by David Boyd to English. In it, we follow Asa, a newlywed, as she follows her husband to the Japanese countryside. There, they move into the guest house of her in-laws, where Asa falls into the routine of a housewife while her husband busies himself at his new job. After a rain-soaked move, the summer proceeds in oppressive, uneventful fashion until one day, when Asa, while on her way to make a deposit for her mother-in-law at the local 7-Eleven, falls into a hole that is exactly her size, at which point her reality grows decidedly unsteady.
To liken Oyamada to Kafka, who attacks the oppressiveness of the civilized world with similar absurdity, is natural enough, and is a comparison Oyamada herself has made. Where Kafka laughs (and despairs) at the bureaucracy of industrialized eastern Europe, Oyamada despairs (and laughs) at the gender and familial roles of contemporary Japan. The surreal acts as a lens, magnifying and clarifying the otherwise invisible Issues that plague each writer’s day-to-day.
But a comparison I find more compelling, at least from a craft perspective, is with Murakami. Both writers pull off the same trick, rendering the mundane maddening, burying their characters’ conflicts within the small acts of the everyday. What’s so impressive about Oyamada is her ability to pull off the same lulling effect in such a small space, presenting us with scene after scene in which nothing much happens, then pulling out the rug from beneath us. Things, we learn, have been happening off-screen. Surreal characters like Asa’s neighbor, Sera, or her brother-in-law, who goes unnamed, are not who they appear to be. Suddenly, after seventy pages of eminently readable lassitude, we are running alongside Asa as she pursues her dementia-stricken grandfather-in-law, hoping for her escape, praying for an act of grace.
How Oyamada gets us here is unclear. It’s a mystery I am grateful for, and which I am trying my hardest to crack. All that’s obvious is that she does: she gets us here. And then leaves us to find our way out.