No point dilly-dallying: Adam Marek’s second collection, The Stone Thrower, definitely lives up to the expectations set by his 2007 debut, Instruction Manual for Swallowing. It’s dark and inventive and thought-provoking; Marek has a gift for both comedy and pathos, and an imagination that ranges widely between science-fiction and bleak realism. I like it. You’ll like it. Go and get it.
But in case you want more detail, let’s dip in. The first story, ‘Fewer Things’, shows us a young boy helping his father rescue tern chicks from choking on knuckle-fish on an isolated island shore; it’s about loneliness and loss and hurt and silence. I heard Marek read this story a few years ago in London, and it was what inspired me to buy his first book in the pub afterwards. It’s a strong opener, filled with brutal imagery (the fish hooking to the insides of the baby birds’ cheeks) and phrases: ‘The empty space we leave on the cliff is like the sound a door makes after it is shut.’ The next story, ‘Dead Fish’, will feel familiar to fans of Marek’s tale, ‘Dinner of the Dead Alumni’ (not reprinted here, but available to read in Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2011 or Riptide Volume 5) – both are ghostly and urgent, the narrator flitting above the action to whisk the reader through streets made unfamiliar by, in ‘Dead Alumni’, the uncanny, and in ‘Dead Fish’, a miserable and mysteriously disastrous future. Marek’s facility to switch from the quiet realism of ‘Fewer Things’ to the startling multifariousness of focus in ‘Dead Fish’, is, for me, what distinguishes him as a writer; he’s comfortable in more than one register and more than one voice, which makes each collection enticing – you’re never sure what’s coming next.
A substantial portion of this book has been anthologised before, some of it by Marek’s publisher, Comma Press – their collections of speculative science-fiction, When It Changed (2009) and Bio-Punk (2012) feature ‘Without A Shell’, an exploration of schoolyard romance, terrorism and nanotechnology, and ‘An Industrial Evolution’, respectively. The latter story is an excellent example of how Marek treats exposition in short fiction – we’ve given the purported foreword (or afterword) of an unseen book, and the reader is expected to fill in the gaps in the characters’ stories; there’s just the right amount of information fed through to give the attentive reader a (rather disturbing) eureka moment. Comma also published ‘Tamagotchi’ in The New Uncanny; the opening line of this one says it all – ‘My son’s Tamagotchi had AIDS.’ There’s an unsettling blurring of boundaries here, between the physical, the inanimate and the psychological, which is again seen in ‘Earthquakes’; Marek balances the comedy of the broken or diseased toy, with the poignancy of the kid who’s struggling with some unspecified autism spectrum condition, and the school-gate politics of the parents trying to cope. Family life and children’s health are themes that recur throughout the collection – ‘The Stone Thrower’, ‘Remember The Bride Who Got Stung’, ‘A Thousand Seams’ and ‘Santa Carla Day’ are all good examples – and Marek displays great tenderness as he evokes the fierce protective love of the embattled parent. The title story, ‘The Stone Thrower’, though brief, is one of my favourites: the motiveless malignancy of the eponymous chicken-killer stands in for the hurt and danger that the outside world poses to the family who have ‘fled’ to this lake-side house, only to find themselves under siege.
Like most books, it’s not flawless. The final lines, for instance, of both ‘The Stormchasers’ and ‘Santa Carla Day’ are too forceful, pulling the reader in interpretive directions that they might still easily have chosen, if they hadn’t been coerced; these pieces, though otherwise well-written, felt therefore didactic, as though some ‘twist in the tale’ short story dictum had been laid down. But there’s thirteen diverse and diverting stories in this book and the other eleven convinced me – just as I bet they’ll convince you. Marek’s a talented writer and the five years between his two collections have done much to incubate and develop that talent.
Any Cop?: What did I tell you? Yes. He’s one of the UK’s best short story writers, and it’s still early in his career. Get on the bandwagon now.