Thursday, April 26, 2012

Instruction Manual for Swallowing

If you read this blog with any frequency, you will have noticed (I'm assuming) that I don't give books rankings. I don't rate books with stars or out of 5 or 10, or in any other way compare them on a fixed scale. Lots of blogs do this; Goodreads does this; I decided not to from the get-go. I was not good at marking on a bell curve when I marked assignments as a TA and I'm not good at it as a reader. How does Roald Dahl compare to Michael Ondaatje? Does a 2/5 ranking mean a book isn't worth reading? How much better is a book that rated a 3/5? Ultimately, my fear is that I would compare a book to the ones I had recently read to try and find a numerical value for it, and if I were coming of a string of truly excellent reads (as I am now), it just wouldn't be fair; likewise, sometimes I pick up a book at exactly the right moment and it suits my mood perfectly, whereas reading the same book at the wrong time would leave me feeling very differently. Suffice to say, I'm glad I don't rank books because I would have a tough time deciding what to do with Adam Marek's short story collection Instruction Manual for Swallowing.

This introduction probably makes it sound like I didn't like this book, but if you've read my About page, then you would know I don't bother writing about books I don't like. (Is that disingenuous? I don't think so.) Anyway, Marek's collection of stories is weird. I tend to like weird, as I've said before, and indeed, I liked many of the stories in Instruction Manual for Swallowing. Take, for example, the first piece in the book, called "The Forty-Litre Monkey." It is a bizarre little story about a man who goes into a pet shop looking to buy a pet for his girlfriend. Her pets have both recently died: the cat tried to eat the lizard and then choked on it, so they effectively killed each other. Weird and darkly hilarious (my mum used to say we couldn't have birds/fish/rabbits, etc. because it wouldn't be fair to the cats, now I know why). In the pet shop, the man is enticed by the owner's description of the animals not my weight, but by volume, and when the owner invites the man to come and see his "forty-litre monkey" (no, that is not a euphemism), he takes him up on it. What follows is a look into the (fictional, I hope) world of competitive monkey rearing. The story is weird and dark and takes you somewhere unexpected: it sets you up for a lot, is what I'm saying.

Unfortunately, not every story lives up to this first one. The collection starts strong, following the voluminous monkey with a woman who becomes pregnant with 37 fetuses and is determined to go through with the pregnancy (I challenge you not to wince your way through that one), and a surprisingly ordinary story about girls in a boarding school where one student has jumped out the window. These stories were unexpected and insightful and entertaining, and their promise kept me going through a number of subsequent stories that started with equal promise and then, to my mind, ended on obvious and banal notes. This could, I should say, have reflected the mood I was in when I was reading them (the weather the last week was less than stellar), but I don't think so. Marek has a lively and wonderful imagination, but I suspect he writes himself into difficult places and then needs to get out; in many cases, what appears to be real in the story could, by the end, simply be an elaborate metaphor for an internal struggle by the central character. I mostly quite enjoyed the scenarios Marek came up with, but in some cases he seemed not quite committed to them.

Although the middle selection of stories dragged a little for me, Instruction Manual for Swallowing picked up quite quickly at the end, and the last three stories were my favourite. "Cuckoo" tells the story of a man who starts hanging out with a 16-year-old girl not because he needs to feel young or is trying to seduce her, but because he believes she's his infant daughter, all grown up. Of course, his wife doesn't get it, and his attempts to explain it both to her and himself are quite endearing. This is followed by the titular story, in which a man imagines his body as a kind of engine room, with Busta Rhymes at the controls. The story hinges on what happens when Busta quits and the man is forced to take responsibility for himself, which leaves him reading book after book of instructions. It reminded me a bit of what it must be like to have a stroke, when your body has to relearn that it has a left arm and then what to do with it. I'm not entirely sure that this is what Marek was getting at, but that sense of relearning how to work your own body is intriguing.

The last story in the book is both the longest and the most unexpected. It's about zombies. I am not a zombie fanatic, but "Meaty's Boys" was my favourite of Marek's stories. In it, the zombie disease has spread, but humans have managed to quarantine it. There's a barrier and zombies live on one side, humans on the other. On the zombie side is a cafe run by humans; they serve person, chopped up, to the brainless masses who show up with their credit cards at the gate every night. This is a weird story for me to like (I'm a longtime vegetarian, for one), but it is one of the few stories in the collection where it seems that Marek has just let himself go: his focus is on telling a story, not serving up a big theme, and he is in his element. "Meaty's Boys" is gross and funny and unexpected, and it was the perfect note to end on.

I feel a bit blasphemous for saying this, but one of the nicest things about short story collections is that you can pick and choose what you want to read. Yes, I generally read them the way they're set out, but there's nothing stopping me from going back and reading them in any order I choose, or only recommending one story in a book of 14; in some collections every story is a gem, in others only a couple stick out. I'm alright with that. Instruction Manual for Swallowing is a little overwhelming when read in its entirety, but if you prefer your surreality in small doses, reading a story here and another there (which not all collections permit so freely), I suspect you'll enjoy this very much.

Instruction Manual for Swallowing
by Adam Marek
First published in 2007 (cover image shown from ECW Press edition)

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