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Disease
by Sarah Tolmie
Aqueduct Press, $12.00, 120pp
Published" August 2020

I thoroughly enjoyed my last trip through one of the Aqueduct Press Conversation Pieces, a set of short speculative fiction tales by Spanish author Sofia Rhei, and I was pleased to see another one waiting for review. This is very different, but a good read, too, from another female writer taking a unique look at life, here through the topical theme of pandemic.

Rather than churn out a set of wildly imaginative stories set in worlds that turn out to be less surreal than ours at this moment in time, she takes a highly interesting approach. Each of these brief chapters in another rather slim volume takes a look at a particular human characteristic and explores it as if it were a disease, with diagnosis, classification and case study.

Oddly, for such a unique approach, comparisons leapt to mind pretty quickly, albeit a diverse set of them.

Most obviously, this comes across as faux popular science and I was reminded of a fantastic book of real popular science by Harold L. Klawans called 'Newton's Madness' (I haven't read its predecessor, 'Toscanini's Fumble'). He's a professor of neurology and his field is the human brain and how it works, or, more accurately, how it sometimes doesn't work the way we expect it to. His stories, inspired by real cases, are often surreal and that surreality is here too.

The idea that an aberration of the brain could turn out to be useful is something that I've pondered on myself a lot. I've never been diagnosed with any disorder, but I'm pretty sure I would have been had I grown up in the US. I believe that I'm afflicted with ADD, if not ADHD, and OCD, but I don't use the word "afflicted" because I've figured out not merely how to live with them but how to make them work for me.

Some of the ways in which the protagonists of these "stories" make their "affliction" work for them reminded me of a story I recently read in 'The Best of Richard Matheson'. It's 'The Holiday Man', my favourite piece from that collection and the idea of it could easily have been put to use here, as indeed could the equivalent in 'One for the Books'.

And that led me right back to G. K. Chesterton's 'The Club of Queer Trades', one of my favourite books of all time and one that has a conceit as overt as this one. It features a set of connected stories that revolve around a central theme, a club which people can only join if they have a unique profession. The protagonist of 'The Holiday Man' and quite a few of these stories in 'Disease' could have joined that club.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I liked the idea behind this book before I read its first page, but found that I wasn't as grabbed by its contents for a few chapters. That doesn't bode well, but they tend to be very short chapters indeed, with an amazing twenty of them within a mere hundred pages and there are plenty either blank or containing only a section header.

It's the brevity that hurts most, because when they began to grab me, I wanted more than was there. 'Scavenging' explores a compulsion to move into other people's old houses, but the "extruded personality borrowing" that goes with it deserves a lot more than three pages. The lady in 'Butterscotch' who is addicted to butterscotch pudding, which seriously affects her ability to travel, and the lady in 'Tachylogophobia' who has trouble with words flashing by her too quickly, deserve more than two each.

As the book runs on, these chapters gain more length and more depth and diseases that can't be solved or which can only be managed start to give way to those which can be beneficial in unique ways. The first of these is 'Carborundum' in which the protagonist, Owen, discovers that he's made of glass, turning a problem into a solution by becoming a novelty stripper. My favourite is probably Deirdre F. in 'Tourist Sensitivity', as close to 'The Holiday Man' as anything else I've read.

These stories gain from depth, because we discover not just a problem and perhaps a solution but an accompanying heartbreak that has to be overcome. 'The "Pied Piper" of Abandoned Pets is as traumatic as it is surreal and it's perhaps the closest this book has to a condition that remains both a problem and a solution. It's kind of both at the same time and it leaves poor Nathan K. into such a specific niche that it's almost a prison.

The surreality of some of these stories, often extrapolated wildly from real world issues, pushes them into the territory of sketch comedy. With a mere gender swap, 'Misrecognition' could have been a sketch on 'The Goodies', completely with a guest appearance or three. 'Fat Reading', in which Joyce A. gains or loses weight not in accordance to her intake but in accordance with the recipes she reads would have been perfect for them, too; and, when we reach 'Killing Joke', featuring a man who's allergic to comedy, comes close to reality, as one man actually had famously died of laughter as he watched that show.

The biggest problem with this book is that it ends. I wanted more chapters and more from many of the existing chapters, a mere few of which seem perfect at three or four pages. These ideas are glorious and many of them could be developed a lot. Another comparison I conjured up is Bill Garnett's fantastic novel, 'The Shadow', in which a man is infected by his dying father and gradually becomes insubstantial and unseen by the rest of the world. The scene where he exposes himself in the lobby of the Ritz and precisely nobody notices would fit here perfectly.

Not all these brief snippets of surreality could become full novels but a few could and most of the rest have enough wild possibility to be longer stories. A few are forgettable but, for the most part, I left this simply wanting more with a big grin on my face. This is pure imagination and it's vibrant. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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