Sunday, 5 May 2013

Instruction Manual For Swallowing

Front CoverI've been marking first year undergraduate creative writing reflections this week. Many of my students mentioned enjoying Adam Marek's short stories. Although Instruction Manual for Swallowing is not a set text, I always play 'The 40-Litre Monkey' and 'Testicular Cancer Versus the Behemoth' (available for free at the Comma Press Story Bank) at some point during the year. I remember when I first read Instruction Manual For Swallowing - I loved it, and that's why I decided to discuss Adam Marek's writing when I entered the Thresholds feature writing competition. My piece concentrates on Marek's second short story collection, The Stone Thrower and it will be published soon. In the meantime, here's a whistle-stop review of Instruction Manual For Swallowing.

Instruction Manual For Swallowing opens as the narrator of ‘The 40-Litre Monkey’ follows a pet shop owner up a narrow staircase to view a record-breaking, Vaseline-slicked baboon whose expression says, 'I know I look ridiculous, but if you say anything, I'll pull your arm off.' In a wonderfully tragicomic scene, the men measure the creature and discuss the highs and lows of competitive animal growing. So begins a beautifully strange, kaleidoscopic collection. 

The characters in Marek's stories inhabit familiar, yet off-kilter worlds. In ‘A Belly Full of Rain’ Brendan fathers thirty six babies. He tries to be a proud father but he feels empty and fearful during the caesarean. It's only when baby twenty nine is stillborn that he is moved, tormented by the fact that she is alone, ‘floating in space, drifting forever.’ The emotion fades however, and the story ends as Brendan poses for a family photograph smiling because baby 17 has filled her nappy and he knows someone else will change it. 

In ‘Sushi Plate Epiphany,’ Gilby forsakes his family to go on a date. He ignores his wife when she calls to say the kids are sick, but he is reminded of them later in the evening when he is suddenly struck down by the same bug. It's wonderfully satisfying to see him hiding in the bathroom, 'firing hot liquid shit into the toilet bowl,' his bum 'swollen in his trousers.'  

The title story tightropes between horror and hallucination as its narrator becomes trapped in the intricate landscape of his own body. When his subconscious says, 'Screw you and screw your job, you can stick it up your arse,' and jumps from the summit of the engine room, the narrator is left with a wooden chest of instruction manuals and the realisation that it could take forever to learn to operate his own body. 'I wonder whether I too should leap from the ladder,' he thinks, in the dying moments of the story. 

Marek's stories have been described as meaty and funny, and they are underpinned by a 'nagging psychological realism' which means that no matter how strange the settings, the characters are all too recognisable. ‘Robot Wasps’ takes place in a delightfully alien world however, misanthrope Hum’s refusal to pay an exterminator to deal with the nest in his garden is distinctly human. The nest is Hum's final straw, the icing on his cake of his financial problems and when the young next door neighbour offers to help, Hum is tempted to blast him with foam and 'seal him up right there in the garden.'  

Other notable stories are ‘Testicular Cancer Verses the Behemoth,’ in which there's a satisfying synchronicity between Austin’s terminal diagnosis and a large scale disaster; ‘Cuckoo,’ a story about a man who inexplicably bumps into a grown up version of his baby daughter and realises, ‘she’s going to be amazing. She’s this incredible kid. The thoughts she has in her head, they just sparkle;’  and my favourite story of the collection, ‘The Centipede’s Wife’ in which a giant centipede makes a terrible confession and Grady, a human, listens without empathy; he finds the centipede's remorse comical, leaving the reader to wonder which creature is the greater monster.

Instruction Manual For Swallowing is clever and funny and big. The collection sweeps across genres and styles. It’s a like the cadenza in the first movement of a piano concerto; Here I am, it says. Look at all the beautiful, incredible things I can do

The Stone Thrower N American coverMarek's second collection, The Stone Thrower is just as skilled, but it's got second movement focus and restraint, and there's a single, unifying theme with subtle echoes and resonances throughout. My piece about The Stone Thrower is available to read here. You can read the other feature pieces by the winner - Nuala Ni Chonchuir, the runner up - Dan Powell and a shortlisted piece by Tom Vowler, at Thresholds, home of the International Short Story Forum. 


  1. Brilliant account of a fantastic collection. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on The Stone Thrower.