"I don't think my mother will die today." You have to have some admiration for an author who begins a story with such a wonderful inversion of Camus' famous opening to THE STRANGER, even though he soon moves into a clotted dystopia of alienation that makes Camus seem almost cheerful. This particular story, though, "Watching Mysteries With My Mother," is almost normal: a meditation on death (and English mystery series on PBS) that only gradually replaces empathy with detachment. It comes more or less in the middle of a collection of fifteen stories that are thoughtfully arranged, from sad but straightforward at the beginning to weird and still weirder towards the end.
All four stories in Part 1 have male sad-sack protagonists, out of shape, no longer young, unhappily married or divorced. Not cheerful reading. But I liked the second, "I Can Say Many Nice Things," about an professor teaching a fiction-writing class on a cruise ship. Marcus' skewering of the students and the pedagogical balancing act required of the professor is so accurate that it made me laugh out loud; I should have treasured the moment, for it would not happen again. Part 2 contains a couple of stories in the form of interviews with sociologists doing work on childhood and hermit behavior respectively. The content is chilling, but the language is such a perfect parody of academic discourse in the social sciences that I have to quote it:
"The term 'adult' is problematic, I think, and it's too easy to say that my childwork is directly divisive to Matures, particularly Rigid or Bolted Matures. I may help accelerate a latent behavior, I may enable conflict vectors along the lines of the Michiganers, who fasted as a form of warfare, and I feign indifference to familial tension, but I think that success itself has been fetishized, and a certain nostalgia for growth has spoiled our thinking."
Better buckle up, for similar diction will recur in many of the later stories. Much as in Ben Marcus' novel THE FLAME ALPHABET, they move towards totalitarian or post-apocalyptic societies. In some, as in "The Loyalty Protocol," even normal interactions and family bonds are governed by community vigilantism whose standards the protagonist cannot fathom. In "The Father Costume," life on land has been replaced by rowing in small boats, and language has all but disappeared. In "First Love" and the other stories in Part 5, a primitive pseudo-science has taken over even the normal processes of feeling and expressing love. But "Leaving the Sea," the title story, is a tour-de-force: six pages of increasing madness in a single run-on period, breaking down with devastating effect at the very end into a stuttered gasp of staccato sentences.
Yes, Marcus is good -- for those that like him -- but I can't say I derived much enjoyment myself. But I was pleased when the last story of all, "The Moors," about a man ("fat Thomas the sadness machine") lusting after a colleague in his office, returned to at least some semblance of the real world, linking neatly with the tales with which the collection opened.