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Winter Scavenger Hunt: A Book with Water on the Cover

leaving the sea

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?  

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting. At least it made you feel something more than apathy! The book I read for this item was a freebie Kindle book. It was harmless enough but I didn’t see the point of its existence. It added nothing new to literature, but I could see it being a cosy read if you didn’t want your brain to be taxed. Like watching an episode of a soap opera.

    I’ve only read Ben Marcus’ first book, The Age of Wire and String, which I enjoyed but I think you would hate! It’s the same experimental playfulness of taking everyday language and subverting it, to find new meanings. It is surreal, but there is a thread there to follow. In it, Marcus has imagined a parallel existence and supplied a book of obscure rules and regulations for the inhabitants to follow. It’s all nonsense, but I had fun trying to follow it.

    To me, the passage you quoted from The Father Costume is about escape and adventure. If you can let go of the usual meanings of the words and visualise the scene, it’s like a dreamscape. I saw something candy coloured like Disney films from the 1960s, with a crazy house and an eccentric Dad taking his children somewhere new. The First Love quote seems to be about first forays into sexuality, where sensuality turns you to liquid and you burrow into the darkness of the new, and then you’re forever chasing that first feeling without admitting it.

    I don’t think it’s about being smart. I think it’s about being willing to catch hold of something different and see where it takes you. Maybe it’s the literary equivalent of abstract art. He might have one thing in mind as he writes, but it’s so abstract that the reader might imagine something completely different in order to make their own sense of it.

    If any of his other books fall my way (I read the one I did because it was on my husband’s bookcase (before he was my husband) and, staying over one weekend, I found myself temporarily bookless), I’ll read them, but I’m not so enamoured that I’ll go out of my way to buy them. There are too many other books to be read first!

    Liked by 1 person

    January 12, 2016
    • I was being melodramatic. I did understand some of the imagery but I just don’t get the point. I agree with you about the story, “first love” and the meaning of that passage. I have no idea about father costume because the rest of the story doesn’t fit that meaning. although what it does fit is beyond me.

      I like weird and quirky but I like that weirdness to be grounded in something I can understand. You might be right about it being like abstract art. It’s not my favorite either but I like it significantly more than experimental and abstract literature.


      January 12, 2016
      • Now I want to read the rest of Father Costume! I hope your melodrama involved flinging the book across the room. I like a good book fling! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        January 12, 2016
      • Ha ha! I love books to much to fling them. I wanted to but I thought instead I’d donate it to a little free library. Would you like it? I will mail it to you. I think you will get much more out of it than I did but then you will have to stop back here and explain it to me 🙂


        January 12, 2016
      • Oh goodness, if you don’t mind posting to England I’d be happy to take it off your hands, but donating to a Little Free Library might be easier. If potentially a little cruel!

        Liked by 1 person

        January 12, 2016
      • Send me your mailing address. You have my email. Much rather it go to someone who would appreciate it. I think for that particular story, escapism is partly true but the deeper meaning is more along the lines of apocalyptic nightmare. The father figure is menacing and behavior changes as the father “changes costumes.” There might be death/murder involved but I couldn’t really say – I became annoyed and skimmed it.

        You could write a counterpoint to my review and we could post it on the blog 🙂


        January 12, 2016
      • It’s a deal! Will email you shortly.


        January 12, 2016
    • Oh and I completely agree with it being like a dreamscape in the way you described.


      January 12, 2016

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. January Monthly Recap | The Reader's Room
  2. Leaving the Sea: Stories | What I Think About When I Think About Reading

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