Domestic dysfunction gets some techno-dystopian twists in Marcus’ third story collection (Leaving the Sea, 2014, etc.).
For Marcus, a true believer in the austere, skeptical, experimental branches of American fiction (Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo, Dana Spiotta), outside forces of nature and technology are always threatening to unsettle everyday existence. In “The Grow-Light Blues,” a man becomes a guinea pig for his employer’s efforts to deliver nutrients via a lamp, which takes a physical and psychic toll. Similarly, the narrator of “The Trees of Sawtooth Park” is a test case for a mood-altering spray, and the story’s careful shift in tone from sarcastic to submissive implies a costly kind of success. If high-tech “improvements” aren’t the problem, low-tech catastrophes will step in: Two stories, “The Sun” and “Stay Down and Take It,” deal with characters whose crumbled relationships are paralleled by approaching massive storms. (“So much of our relationship depends on him being alive,” deadpans the latter story’s narrator about her spouse. “Almost all of it.”) And then there are problems whose sources are harder to pinpoint, as in “Cold Little Bird,” in which a 10-year-old boy baffles his Jewish parents by becoming an anti-Semitic 9/11 truther. Pushback against oppressive parenting? Mental illness? Something in the ether? Marcus allows for every allegorical option while sustaining a peculiar seriocomic mood. Compared to his previous works, these are more conventional narratives, though he still admires abstracted metafiction; “Critique” imagines a hospital that’s a kind of artistic commentary on hospital. But his storytelling is easier to coolly respect than fall for given how storm-clouded it is: We are “anguished little need machines,” he writes, and asks, “Who does not seem pained, finally, when you examine them closely enough?”
Richly imagined stories though this fog is a particularly dark one.