Thursday, 13 January 2011

Instruction Manual for Swallowing - Adam Marek (Comma Press, 2007)

You know how real music fans talk about favourite labels? Floppy fringed skinny puppies who are excessively fond of Postcard Records, doe-eyed 80s goths dribbling on about 4AD or neo-Nazi collectors of Factory output? Unlike the big boys - EMI, Virgin and all the other multi-nationals constantly crying that piracy is killing music - the little guys release records which share a certain sound and a particular way of thinking, which is reflected both in the music and its packaging.

It's the same with publishers. My two favourite small presses are Comma Press and Salt Publishing. I'm going to try to avoid using any word even remotely like 'quirky' but the authors they publish do seem to have a similar sensibility and approach to story telling. At Salt and at Comma a group of writers have created short story collections which share a certain off kilter view of the world; stories which seem to take a step back from the humdrum and mundane and which spot the secret things which happen on the periphery of our vision. That sounds terribly pretentious, I know, but I'm struggling to put into words exactly what it is that links these writers and publishers, even while knowing what it is.

An ethos, perhaps. A sense of shared values, even.


Perhaps the best thing to do is talk about one of the books?

Instruction Manual for Swallowing is Adam Marek's first collection according to his website, but I can only assume that he had written pretty widely before creating this compilation of his work. There's little flab on show here, and absolutely no sign that Comma simply collected up every short story he'd ever written, threw a front cover on it and released the new book into the world.

Instead, what we have is a series of highlights, a set of stories where each successive tale trumps the one before it in some respect and where the very best stuck in my mind and popped back up as I lay in bed in the dark.

Like Paul Magrs' Salt collection, Twelve Stories, this is a book about a universe gone slightly and unexpectedly askew. Futuristic tales about metal wasps with red LEDS in their heads and Godzilla rising from the waves and destroying an un-named western city jostle for space with grotesque tales about a woman giving birth to thirty-seven foetuses and suicidal cheerleaders.

These are surreal stories in the proper sense of the word: placing the bizarre into the mundane world, juxtaposing the impossible with the probable, scattering hints of the banal in a universe gone mad. Zombies roam middle England, a man dresses in tea towels and gardening gloves to fight deadly robotic insects and nine foot tall Gilbert and George step out of stained glass into the Tate Modern, wielding giant willies.

It's actually this contrast and the presence of a prosaic background which prevents the book becoming a little too one note for comfort. There's a fine line between 'askew' and 'wacky', but luckily Marek stays on the right side of that line and if the occaisonal story dips a little, it tends to be when - as with the slight tale, 'Sushi Plate Epiphany' - he forgoes this surreal strand and attempts straight-forward story-telling in a straight-forward setting.

At times, I was reminded of John Irving ('Thanks to the monster, he'd stopped dying for a second' ponders the titular hero of 'Testicular Cancer vs the Behemoth'), at others of a more restrained Philip K Dick ('Robot Wasps' and 'A Gilbert and George Talibanimation' in particular) or even David Cronenberg (the slice of gross out horror, best exemplified by 'Belly Full of Rain'), and at others still, of nobody in particular, which was best of all.

Marek is apparently working on a second collection and a novel, but for anyone wanting a taster of this book, you can hear him read 'Testicular Cancer' here.

You can buy Instruction Manual for Swallowing here. And you really should.

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