September 05, 2012
Paul Tremblay’s Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye (ChiZine Publications) is a contemporary version of Animal Farm amped up on bitterness, future technology and sad realizations that things are not going to end well. Our unnamed narrator is forced into situations beyond his control, a reluctant hero in search of his mother, an angry youth who has little love left for his father, a boy not quite ready to be a man.
As a teen, he runs off to work at Farm, thinking he is helping his mother. Years later when his paychecks bounce back to him, her account closed, he fears the worst. An opportunity to escape presents itself, and he flees Farm, only to run into his father, who has set him up to be the next mayor of City—or perhaps just a patsy waiting for the fall.
Farm is corporate, Farm is omniscient, Farm is both alpha and omega. Trapped in meaningless jobs, a contract signed for slave wages with no way out, the environment is false, layered, and humiliating:
“If we don’t smile, if we don’t follow the tour Protocol to the capital P, if we break any rules, if we’re late for any shifts, if we swear at supervisors, if we swear at the animals, if we’re caught having sex on the job with co-worker or animal, if we’re caught stealing or eating or sabotaging the animals, we’re contractually and severely punished.”
So it goes. Tremblay paints a dystopian portrait in the gaps between the ritual and the work, the mundane and the weird. Picture this for a moment, the setting for Home—a world buried far underneath the ground, where the destitute go to die:
“Spread out before me is a living Escher painting. Denuded sequoia trees serve as the giant support posts for City and they are as big as anything I’ve ever seen, or even imagined, thicker than skyscrapers, their height disappearing into a cloudy darkness above. Struts and beams, both horizontal and angled span across the distances between the posts, some are wide enough for four lanes of two-way pedestrian traffic while others are as skinny as a flagpole. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern or reason to the construction of any of it. I see a spider web and then I blink and I see spokes in a bike tire, I blink again and I see the gnarled inner branches of a rose bush. All this I see in every direction, until darkness. And all over everything is humanity and their adaptations and appendages.”
But in addition to the futuristic setting, a society that is beyond comprehension, with its Farm and its Dump—Tremblay manages to take a step back from a story that is one depressing moment after another. He injects humor into the lives of his characters on a regular basis, which is a great relief to the reader, showing how these people deal with this strange new world. In speaking about his father, the Father, our narrator says:
“He’s starting to grow on me. Like a melanoma.”
The banter between our hero and his father, the Father, is riddled with good humor and insults, curse words and idle threats. It allows us to relax for a moment, to joke with them about their difficult situations, to ignore for a moment the harsh realities of the world they inhabit.
Tremblay could have stopped here, leaving us with a story that was unusual and humorous, not deep or emotional—but he doesn’t. By working in back story, by showing us the quiet moments between a mother and her son, he forces us to put down our guard, to imagine for a moment what must have come before the boy left home, before the mother disappeared, before things got messy and chaotic. Take this early scene where our narrator talks of the imaginary spider in the elevator, a thinly veiled disguise of what he wishes his mother would do:
“…she would wrap me up tighter, into a warm cocoon, rub my belly and back, cozy up real close to me, so close I wouldn’t know what was cocoon and what was her, and whisper sweet lies about how everything would be okay and I’d listen and want to believe her.”
What allows this story to breathe, to seep into our pores, is the balance that Tremblay creates between fantasy and reality, between moments we have never witnessed, and dark horrors and quiet lives that we’ve all endured in excruciating detail. We have all come from homes, from families, we have formed our parental bonds, or allowed them to be severed. We have labored at humiliating jobs for terrible pay and sworn to the darkness that we would not let this stand. We have prayed for salvation, and cursed our weaknesses as we cried ourselves to sleep in hopes of something changing tomorrow—always tomorrow. The truth is camouflaged as humor. When reading Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye, be careful when you let your guard down—know that Tremblay is shaking his left fist, swinging that arm around, forcing your attention over here, so you don’t see what he’s doing over there, and then BAM, the uppercut, sending you sprawling to the canvas. These parting words say it all:
“What [is] more confusing or depressing than watching your gods become human?