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Book Review: Instruction Manual for Swallowing by Adam Marek

Red book cover witha  fly on it and the title "Instruction Manual for Swallowing" written in pink, and the author's name "Adam Marek" written in black.Summary:
A collection of fourteen short stories taking one ordinary experience and inserting an extraordinary fantastical, scifi, or bizarro instance into the situation, seeing how the main character reacts.

Review:
A mixed collection, containing both 2 star and 5 star stories, although most stick right around the 3 star mark.  The stories veer between scifi and fantasy, although both have some bizarro element in them.

Where Marek excels is when he takes a little talked-about male experience and utilizes the unique qualities of genre fiction to explore it.  The only 5 star story in the collection, “Boiling the Toad” explores a male victim of domestic violence.  It does this in a powerful way without demonizing all women.  The story starts as “my life is so bizarre” but eventually becomes all too real.  It’s interesting to note that this is also the opposite of many stories in the collection.  Many start ordinary and turn bizarre.  Starting bizarre and turning ordinary worked much better.  Similarly, “Testicular Cancer vs. The Behemoth” explores male feelings about a cancer that is only possible to get if you have testicles.  Marek fairly eloquently presents the main character as attempting to defend his perceived manhood by trying to protect his girlfriend from a Godzilla-like monster attacking the city.  These stories are interesting, and I enjoyed exploring them.

Where the collection fails and flounders, though, is when the main character is self-centered and perceives of women as objects or only existing for his pleasure.  It’s incredibly difficult to feel any empathy for a character who wants to cheat on his wife but ends up failing because of a mysterious puking illness he gets at the sushi restaurant (Sushi Plate Epiphany) or to care about a man who calls his pregnant wife a monster and tries to cheat on her while she’s still carrying his children (Belly Full of Rain).  A lot of these stories incited an eye-roll and “boohoo it’s so horrible to be a man” sarcastic response from me, which I seriously doubt was what the author was going for.

Then there are the stories that simple don’t seem to have any point or make any sense.  They seem to just be getting going when Marek stops them abruptly.  Or they do seem to be at their end but there is just no point.  Both “the Forty-Litre Monkey” and “Jumping Jennifer” have a great set-up of a mystery but that mystery is never addressed.  They stop too soon.  “Instruction Manual for Swallowing” and “The Thorn” are highly fantastical yet the conflict isn’t set up enough so as to be interesting.

Marek’s writing style varies widely between the perfect tone for bizarro genre fiction and being overly pretentious for his genre.  For instance he writes sentences like this:

Being in the room felt like being suffocated in an armpit. (location 55)

But also pretentiously calls a college quad a “quadrangle” (“Jumping Jennifer”).

Overall then this is a widely varied collection of bizarro short fiction.  Some of the stories offer wonderful insight into male issues while others wallow annoyingly in the minds of terrible men who only think they have a problem, while still others set up a fantastic world but are ultimately boring due to lack of conflict.  If you are intrigued by any of the stories mentioned, I would advise getting a copy from the library since they will be quickly read, and you can return it when done.  Definitely feel free to skip around in this collection.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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