Leaving the Sea is a collection of self-contained short stories which focus on the theme of alienation. Aspects of this theme range from the practical struggles of parenthood to fantastical descriptions of the world at large. Each story features characters who feel isolated because they are unable to communicate their needs to others or, at times, even to themselves.
The opening four stories are the most conventional. The first story, “What Have You Done?”, sets the tone for those that follow. The reader is introduced to Paul Berger, as he travels to Cleveland for a family reunion. During his visit he experiences what he terms the “Berger psychosis” as he unsuccessfully attempts to ignore his relative’s distrust of him, which stems from unexplained incidents in his teenage years, while desperately trying to hold on to his wife’s respect. Marcus demonstrates the ease with which a character can have an uncomfortable multiplicity of identities; Paul is both a child and an adult, as well as a father and a son. Following on from this, “I Can Say Many Nice Things”, gives a snapshot into a decaying relationship. This is followed “The Dark Ages”, which focuses on a self-destructive relationship alongside an innovative treatment for autoimmune diseases. The final story of the section, “Rollingwood” is infused with elements of lost love, corporate ruthlessness and sinister hints of prejudice, and is predominantly centred on Mather’s attempt to care and provide for his sickly son. Overall, the stories in this section focus on the lack of empathy that exists in the modern world.
Leading on from the first part, the later sections centre on guilt and responsibility. The maturity of the characters in these latter sections is comically feigned, most aptly in “Watching Mysteries with My Mother”, in which the statistician’s son attempts to reassure himself with the probability that “for my mother to die today, things would need to take a rapid turn”. As the collection continues, the settings become more marvellous and more explicitly experimental in terms of world-making, or rather, world-remaking. Marcus treads a fine line between the fantastical and the real. The world is always at least partially recognisable in each story; just at the point where the narrator becomes elusive, there is a blunt interruption. However, the stories are more permanently grounded in their recurring archetypal characters: scornful women, needy children, and those that are outside the family structure, the unsympathetic outsiders. Marcus creates a curious effect on the reader in that these characters are both recognisable as well as alienating.
With that being said, I am uncertain about the need for part two, which interrupts the evolution of the collection. Although the stories are interesting asides, rather than explicitly signposting the purpose of the later stories, they struck me as unnecessary to the ambience of the collection as a whole. Whilst others will enjoy the playful satire, I felt that the final story in the first section, “Rollingwood”, made the transition from realism to the weightier existential themes that are explored towards the end of the collection.
Leaving the Sea is both exhilarating and exhausting, and not to be read in a single sitting. Marcus’ work at its heart questions why our ancestors bothered to leave the simple life of the sea, only to evolve into a species that alienate one another. This is a concept that Marcus refuses to resolve; having constructed the collection as an unrelenting flow of short stories which immerse the reader and then abruptly end, the form ironically replicates being trapped in the sea. Marcus’ work is tantalising, the text itself is definitive, and forces you to think about several uncomfortable questions, most notably: yes, we have ‘evolved’ and left the sea, that much is certain, but what does it mean to be human?