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Instruction Manual for Swallowing

Adam Marek

"Everything about the universe is miraculous. Miracles are the milk on which all life flourishes."

Reviewed 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 the 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…

Read extracts from this collection on Adam Marek's website.

 Vanessa 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).

Vanessa's other Short Reviews:   Brian George "Walking the Labyrinth"

Heidi James, Kay Sexton and Lucy Fry "Two Tall Tales and One Short Novel"

Andy Murray (ed) "Phobic"

Jhumpa Lahiri "Unaccustomed Earth"


Publisher: Comma Press

Publication Date: 2007

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author 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.

Read an interview with Adam Marek

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Author's Recommended Bookseller: Comma Press


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Comma Press (Anthology) "The New Uncanny"

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The Independent