As an opening sentence, “My son’s Tamagotchi had AIDs” reads like one of Noel Fielding’s one-liners. You’d therefore expect ‘Tamagotchi’ to be a crassly provocative and tactless story, stretching its conceit to the breaking point of good taste and good writing. Instead, Adam Marek presents a controlled, comic and miraculously tender account of fatherhood and social awkwardness. Baffled by the descent of his disabled son’s electronic pet into critical illness, the narrator attempts resuscitation by connecting it with another child’s Tamagotchi – in turn, inadvertently infecting the whole peer group and casting his son out as a pariah. Almost over-the-top yet understated, ‘Tamagotchi’ is emblematic of most of The Stone Thrower, Marek’s second collection: these are stories that threaten overexcited wackiness in their premises, but which deliver something far more complex and sensitive in their execution.
It’s refreshing to read a book so unashamedly packed with ideas, without wincing at an author carried away by their imagination. Quite the opposite, Marek confidently channels a zany mishmash of orang-utans, superheroes and toothless sharks into a subtle and suggestive prose. At the beginning of ‘The Captain’, for example, a man faces a truckload of corpses dumped outside his front door. The image is as exhilarating as it is macabre: “Arms and legs wrestled against each other as they fell. Heads banged against heads and against his doorstep”. But instead of meeting the event with horror, as we might expect, the man reacts with irritation at logistical laziness (“Not there you idiots!”). Marek deftly and counterintuitively combines the absurd with the banal, creating a sort of domesticated surrealism. Similarly, in ‘Without a Shell’, the outlandishness of a body-repairing school uniform, worn to withstand Iranian terrorist attacks, soon drops into the background, Marek focussing instead on an aggressive adolescent relationship. Of course, Marek seems to be saying, why should the reader be made to marvel at technology when its novelty has long been lost on its habitual users?
The Stone Thrower encompasses diverse styles, perspectives and differing degrees of fantasy, but a few recurring, almost obsessive themes soon become apparent. Marek has described moments like the birth of his son, who suffers from autistic spectrum disorder, as “emotional earthquakes in the timeline of my life” which “demand to be starting points for fiction, because they are an opportunity to be honest about something that is so often talked about so dishonestly.” Accordingly, most of these stories feature a child needing special protection: a fatal allergy to bee stings, a brittle body, a cleft palate (beautifully described as “a complicated flower”) or the fictional Sterna’s Syndrome – a form of severe epilepsy that triggers earthquakes. This protective impulse extends to animals, another major theme in this collection. The opening story, ‘Fewer Things’, is a beautiful example of how these two strands are interwoven; it is a mysterious, melancholic piece, set on a remote island where a father instructs his son how to pull ‘knuckle-fish’ from the bills of tern chicks before they choke to death (a fine and fitting story from a former RSPB copywriter).
Unfortunately, the emphatic reiteration of these themes can be exhausting. This is not helped by the fact that the collection’s weaker stories are lumped into its second half, so that towards the end you can’t help but feel like you have already read more accomplished versions of certain stories. While ‘Fewer Things’ and ‘Tamagotchi’ handle their weighty issues with a subdued delicacy, stories like ‘A Thousand Seams’ and ‘Earthquakes’ slide towards a limp sentimentality.
It’s perhaps for this reason that the collection’s best stories are those that stray furthest from its overexposed themes. ‘Dead Fish’ is the most stylistically innovative piece, narrated by a bizarre group of seemingly supernatural entities, explicitly orchestrating vantage points and pace: “Let’s move up, above the rooftops”, “Slide with me down the seam of Alice’s long jacket”. The overall effect is a fantastically rich snapshot of a moment in a rotting, dystopian city, reminiscent of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon. Marek masterfully balances the fantastic setting with the quotidian existence of its inhabitants, described simultaneously: a boy running from the police, a family cooking, a couple having sex, a woman at a market stall worrying about her kids getting into a good school.
The collection’s real highlight is its title story, a weird, short piece that tells the story of a man protecting his chicken coop from a shadowy figure hurling rocks from across a lake. Marek takes his staple themes and reduces them to something close to a parable, half-abstracted, set up like a joke, but resolutely refused a punchline. It is in stories like this, where oddness and absurdity work alongside simplicity and restraint, that Marek’s writing talents are most evident and most enjoyable.