Winter Scavenger Hunt: A Book with Water on the Cover
Item number 4 on our winter scavenger hunt list is a book that features water on the cover. Our participants have selected some good ones so far (you can check out those selections here) and we hope you’ll add your own suggestions or recommendations for good books that feature water on the cover. I’m making relatively slow progress on my list. I chose Ben Marcus’ Leaving the Sea: Stories for my book. Here’s what I thought (prepare yourself for a full-on rant).
I don’t usually like short stories, because they usually don’t allow enough space for deep character development. But I had also just finished Anthony Marra’s beautiful story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno (review here) and thought perhaps I had misjudged the genre. Maybe, just maybe, I would become enthralled with Ben Marcus. And I do certainly have some strong feelings about Marcus’ work, feelings that are not captured by the word enthralled.
I picked this book first and foremost for the beautiful cover and, second, for the very strong reviews from sources like NPR and The Boston Globe. Reviews stated things like “utterly compelling, brilliant, astute, and most vital, extraordinary writer of his generation.” I should have read more about Marcus’ style before buying it. I hated it with a seething, vitriolic rage.
We started off on the right foot, Ben Marcus and I. In fact some of the earlier stories were psychologically evocative and “darkly funny.” I wouldn’t say the sparks were flying — we were squarely in the friend zone — but I could envision our relationship blossoming. But then it all went downhill in a very weird and creepy way. By the end I wanted to throttle him. My generally friendly and non-confrontation self wanted to scream, “why are you doing this to me you nonsensical, self-indulgent lunatic.”
Leaving the Seas is a set of 15 short stories. They are grouped into six parts and, as the book progresses, the stories become increasingly more surreal and experimental with the last sections breaking all literary rules. The majority of the stories revolve, in some way, around family and interpersonal relationships. Most of them are very dark and lots seem to end with cliffhangers. The initial stories were quirky and dark but relatively easy to understand and follow. Starting around part two, they seem to go off the deep end and it becomes increasingly hard to find any kind of meaning or greater point to the stories. Honestly, I don’t even know how to summarize some of the wackier stories. Leaving the Sea, the title story, was a 6-page story comprised of 6 sentences.
Sigh. I’m not one for surrealism (although I make an exception for Kafka’s works) so I’m probably being unfair to Marcus, as his works will appeal to a subset of readers who really enjoy experimental fiction. But this set of stories infuriated me in their sheer incomprehensibility.
Take these two paragraphs of the the story titled First Love:
When we pursued the discipline, we fought toward the seizure known as nighttime. Nighttime promised a better statistic of invisibility. It was our primary collaboration, to arrive where we wouldn’t be seen. We fantasized about a place where we could be wet and boneless, where no one would dare attribute a feeling to us. The safest thing to say about water is that is has no bones, unless a person has been trapped in it.
Relationships fail when the mouth is too small or refuses food. Touching one’s own mouth is the first gesture of masturbation, because it explicitly advertises self-sufficiency. Men grow mustaches and beards to become less attractive to themselves, to decrease the chances of making their partners obsolete. Cultures that eat with their hands are boasting about their lovemaking abilities.
And then there’s this except from what has to be the least comprehensible story in the lot: The Father Costume. Don’t ask me what it’s supposed to be about.
Father took down the wind sock and inhaled the last remnants of yesterday’s air for strength. He passed the sock to my brother, who lazily wiped his face with it before fitting it onto an unused potion of his costume. He spoke three Forecast sentences into his scarf before kissing it and wrapping it around his neck. The language made me drowsy. The three of us rolled our bodies in the Costume Smoother and checked ourselves for wind drag. Father unplugged the four corners of the house and kicked at the baseboards to set the decay timer. He coordinated his kicks with the Bird Metronome until the room became recalibrated and silent, more hushed than I had ever heard it, which made me want to stay there and hold my breath, to take a silence bath, to rub my sleeves and from myself clean.
Huh? I consider myself a relatively smart person. I have a Ph.D. and that should count for something, right? This book made me feel like the dumbest person on earth. The Boston Globe review (on the book’s back cover) stated that the book was “filled with Marcus’s lovely rhythmic sentences and wise insights about family, self, and masculinity.” Are they truly wise insights if no one else can understand them? At times I felt like I was reading strings of words put together in random ways that seemed like sentences but conveyed no clear meaning. I’m not alone in my experience, either. I looked at quite a few Goodreads reviews to see how others understood the book and even those who rated it 5 stars wrote things like “I’m pretty sure this story was written using Mad Libs” and “Some stories I would punch and shove my way through, others I would put up my hand and surrender, simply being unable to mentally wade through it.”
So Ben and I will have to part ways. It wasn’t meant to be. He’s smart and quirky, qualities that I generally like in my authors, but also comes across as trying too hard to be different and clever. For me, the book read like a writing exercise where a brilliantly smart writer decides to play around with style without really considering his readers.
Will you like this book? It gets an average rating of 3.34 on Goodreads and slightly more than 40% of people who read it gave it either 4 or 5 stars. I gave the book 2.5 stars, but rounded up for creativity. If you like highly experimental work then chances are you will like it, at least more than I did.
If you want to try it for yourself, you can find a copy here:Leaving the Sea
We want to hear from you. Have you read this book? Did you like it? Why am I wrong in my hatred of this book? Have you read others by Ben Marcus?
Challenge participants: Which book did you chose for this item? Did you like it?