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Moderately interesting stories with an enigmatic bent
on 22 June 2013
'Instruction Manual For Swallowing', Adam Marek's first collection, appeared in 2007. It gathers fourteen stories, of which a handful have appeared in anthologies and magazines.
Marek is still a relatively young writer, but was already in his thirties when this book appeared, and had developed a consistent voice. Typically, the tone is straightforward, even flat: there are no verbal fireworks, and Marek's narrators are ordinary people with no special powers of understanding - though they encounter others who are less predictable.
Marek decants some of these people into situations in which ordinary life, with its sushi bars and iPods and art galleries, is transformed by an eruption of the bizarre. Some find themselves subject to cartoonish social torments. Others inhabit nightmarish parallel or future worlds, in which they labour against grotesque odds to perform a version of normality. Little is explained.
Adam Marek is writing about our world, with its familiar gadgets and cultural memes, but his stories range further: they are not limited in imagination to the hermetically-sealed world of the metropolitan middle-class. Nor is Marek frightened of being thought low-brow for treating themes more familiar from SF and fantasy than from literary fiction.
On the other hand, I found none of these stories particularly memorable. The best seem to aspire to something like Kafka's atmosphere of existential strangeness and dread, but lack that writer's compelling power. The lesser stories are variations on familiar themes in recent popular fiction and cinema. There is throughout too great a dependence on the device of refusing to explain, which aims at the fascination of the enigmatic but risks leaving the reader marooned with a sense that the stranger events of the stories are essentially authorial contrivances - strangeness for strangeness' sake, effortful and unmotivated. There is a feeling of falling between stools: of a writer who isn't powerful enough to aspire to the heights, but can't reconcile himself to writing out-and-out popular fiction for a mass audience. The stories that stay closest to the everyday are the most convincing.
On balance, 'Instruction Manual For Swallowing' is worth glancing at for anyone interested in contemporary British fiction. I found it too derivative of its influences to be of more than passing interest. Adam Marek has since produced a second volume of stories, which I haven't read.