by Vanessa Gebbie
If you are looking for miracles, look no further. This book is chocca
with them, so much so that they almost become ordinary. This writer is
a real original, of that there is no doubt.
The most unlikely things are set
alongside each other, seemingly impossible juxtapositions – and yet the
stories that Marek weaves out of these weird marriages are hauntingly
strong stuff, exploring very real issues through the prism of
absurdity. An apparently extra-incongruous collision in the list is Testicular Cancer Versus the
Behemoth, in which a man's discovery that he has advanced
cancer is overshadowed by his attempts to extricate his girlfriend from
the path of a rampaging giant lizard. Sounds crazy? Maybe. But then
think about it – one man's fading masculinity due to the destruction of
his testes set against a city besieged by a monster from the deep? It's
totally ‘logical' in one sense. And that is a common thread. I am taken
into a world in which things are seen through broken mirrors, in which
the underpinning logic is both fractured and yet recogniseable, and I
find that fascinating and not a little seductive. I am made to see
things differently, both on the surface and deeper, over and over again.
And just when the strange worlds of
the stories might begin to pall, and the reader begins to wonder ‘so
what will he come up with next?', Comma Press pops in a realistic piece
or two to the mix, such as Sushi
Plate Epiphany, and Cuckoo,
and in the subsequent search for surreal images one is instead faced
with Marek's acute observation skills, his dialogue skills, his ability
to create breathing, vulnerable, flawed and complex characters,
although I have to admit I found these stories less compelling. They
work best as a foil.
But then again, Marek's characters
are not always of the human kind – and among the most memorable
creations in the collection is the Centipede in The Centipede's Wife,
a creature who is seeking to atone for some fairly nasty sins.
Like the Centipede, many of Marek's
main characters are male, vulnerable, flawed beings struggling to cope
with some googly bowled straight at them by life. The father-to-be who
discovers his wife is expecting thirty seven babies at once is a good
example. A Belly Full
of Rain is a funny story, and there are moments when the
scenarios described in Marek's deadpan simple prose raise more than a
grin, but then I was left aching for the loss of one of those babies,
its stillbirth described in a seeming throw-away sentence which comes
back at you and stings long after the story is gone and the
quasi-plausible scenario of a pregnant belly distended by pigskin
inserts has faded.
Indeed there is plenty of humour
here. The Bridport Prize success Robot
Wasps, a sort of Sci-fi ‘One Foot in the Grave' is
hilarious, clever and poignant in equal measure as Marek explores a
futuristic vision in which we are still exploited by commerce with
potentially deadly effects. Underneath the fantastic and the grotesque
invariably lies something that feels like sadness and bewilderment
driving the work, as the characters struggle to make something
meaningful out of the complex and incomplete jigsaw Marek gives them.
The pet-shop owner in his other Bridport success The 40 Litre Monkey
for example (one of my favourite stories), faced with his prize beast
displacing not quite enough water:
"I looked at the water.
'It says thirty nine,' I said.
'Don't be stupid,' he snapped, but
then he looked at the meniscus and gasped. It was a sound of pain, of
betrayal. His intake of breath and the way he looked at the baboon were
loaded with hurt.'
And the extraordinary poignancy of
the monkey's response:
"'The baboon let go the sides of
tank and rose up. His head broke the surface and he wheezed for breath,
panic over his face, as if he knew he was guilty of something awful.'"
Marek creates a world at which the
reader laughs, but there is often a turning point where our response to
the absurdity segues into a sideways look at our own frailties. And not
just the psychological - the human body comes in for some uncomfortable
exposure throughout as Marek pulls no punches about the less attractive
bodily functions, creating some memorable and cringe-worthy moments.
But it is never gratuitous - there will always be a thought running
under the surface… is the graphic stomach upset in Sushi Plate Epiphany
a manifestation of the conscience of a would-be Lothario? The most
graphic of the stories is Meaty's
Boys, a zombie saga set in deepest darkest Hertfordshire.
Don't attempt to read this one whilst eating at a café.
Apparently, he gets a lot of
inspiration from his dreams, and one story, The Thorn, in which
a splinter in a boy's foot turns out to be not just a fork but a
hallmarked one, comes straight from a dream. And, as Megan Vaughan said
after her fascinating interview with Marek,
"He is either intrinsically
fascinating or incredibly fucked-up, but as long as he keeps churning
out writing that is as bizarre and as memorable as debut collection Instruction Manual for Swallowing,
we heartily endorse the eating of cheese before bed."
I concur wholeheartedly, and look
forward to his first novel with glee.
Are there any negatives? Yes – I
stumbled over some bad editing errors, and that was disappointing. And
if you are a reader who needs to find resolution and neatly tied up
endings, you won't find them here. Marek's stories leave you gasping,
like a fish chucked too high up the beach on a rogue wave, wondering
how to get back to the sea. I said the book was unsettling…
from this collection on Adam
Gebbie is a writer, writing teacher and
editor. Many of her prizewinning stories are gathered in her collection
Words from a Glass Bubble. (Salt Modern Fiction 2008). She is also
contributing editor to Short Circuit, a Guide to the Art of the Short
Story (forthcoming, Salt Publishing).
bio: Adam Marek's debut short story collection, Instruction manual for swallowing,
was published by Comma Press in 2007. It was nominated for the Frank
O’Connor Prize – the biggest prize in the world for a collection of
short stories. His stories have also appeared in Prospect magazine and in anthologies including When it changed, Parenthesis and The new uncanny from Comma Press, two Bridport Prize collections and the British Council’s New Writing 15. He is working on his first novel.
with Adam Marek
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