Book: Muscle Memory
Author: Steve Lowe
Type of Book: Fiction, bizarro, novella
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: At the risk of sounding repetitive, it’s bizarro and bizarro is always odd.
Availability: Published by Eraserhead Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments:We begin day two of Bizarro Week with a reminder that each day I am giving away a copy of the book I discuss. All you have to do to enter the drawing for the free book is to leave me a comment. It’s that easy. You have until 9:00 pm CST today, 2/15/11, to leave me a comment, and that comment will put your name in the drawing. Giving away free books is how I show my gratitude to my readers (and it also drums up attention for my site – let us not think I am not without ulterior motives) so comment!
Muscle Memory is a clever, sad little book that employs one of the most cliched plot lines ever: a person wakes up in a body not their own. We’ve seen this at play in so many craptacular movies, mostly aimed at teens, like Freaky Friday and Vice Versa. But Steve Lowe’s use of this trope is decidedly different and if there is any cliche in it, it is the sort of triteness that contrasts well with the strange plot, small town humor and melancholy sadness that made reading this book a pleasure.
The plot is, like a lot of bizarro, deceptively simple: A man wakens in his wife’s body and realizes his entire town has switched bodies with the person or animal they were closest to when the switch happened. Husbands and wives wake up in each other’s bodies, a suspected sheep-shagger is in the body of a ewe, the dog is meowing and the cat is barking. Hijinks should ensue and they sort of do, in the sort of small town quirkiness one sees in Chuck Klosterman’s novels. But the ramifications of body-switching in Lowe’s novel transcends the zany and heartwarming things that happened to LiLo and Jamie Lee Curtis as they discover how hard the other has it in this world and their love and respect for each other deepen, etc. No, though Lowe uses humor liberally through the book, like the appearance of Terry Bradshaw in a dream and the recurring jokes about bestiality, this book takes a far more penetrating look at the human condition.
You see, Billy is married to Tina and they have an infant son, Rico. Billy wakes up in Tina’s body but she does not wake up in his. Billy’s body never wakes up at all because the night before the switch happened, Tina, in the throes of post-partum depression, poisoned Billy with antifreeze. So while Billy has to learn to navigate in his wife’s body, as he and his neighbors try to figure out what happened, as the government comes to investigate, Billy has to come to terms with not only the fact that his wife murdered him, but also the very real possibility that if things return to normal, he will return to a dead body. No matter what happens, his life will never go back to normal. No matter what, Billy’s physical body is buried in Tucker’s barn, as he and his friends try cover up Tina’s crime from the authorities. There will be no happy moment wherein he and his wife embrace, each aware of what it really means to walk in the other’s shoes. His marriage is over any way you cut it and he may soon be dead himself if normalcy is restored.
Lowe mimics a small-town style of speech that is not wholly familiar to me but reads well, and that sort of vernacular does two things. First, it gives wide latitude for broad humor and second, it applies itself well showing that deep existential experiences are not the sole purview of more high-minded literary characters. It is a language that permits humor and realization that in amongst the folksy language and the “aren’t small towns cute?” sort of mindset reading such dialogue creates, there is great human depth as well. Because even as these people burst into singing Olivia Newton John songs in bars, they are dealing with some deep problems. Like Billy’s startling realization that he had no idea what his wife felt, that she had been in state of psychological despair and he had not noticed.
Lowe shows Billy’s casual cluelessness very cleverly. Billy surely had witnessed his wife Tina nurse their son before but when he awakens in her night gown, inside her body, tasked with nursing Rico, he has no idea how to arrange the nightgown so that he can feed the baby. Luckily, his neighbors, Julia and Tucker, are there, and Julia, though she is in Tucker’s body, explains that there is a flap in the nightgown that makes nursing much easier. This is handled with a small amount of slapstick, as Julia has to show Billy how to use the gown, using Tucker’s oversized hands. But the scene, along with Billy’s admission that he would feign sleep so Tina would always be the one to get up with their son, shows a man who is completely apart from his evidently emotionally fragile wife.
But Lowe’s use of broad humor and silly details keeps this from being a completely dark experience. The whole novella is peppered with the ridiculous. For example, the cat has just barked at Tucker (in Julia’s body):
“Yeah, no shit, whoa.”
“So this is like one of them Twilight Zone things, right? Or maybe it’s more like Dark Matters or something.”
“Tales From the Dark Side.”
“Yeah, that was the black and white one with the dude in the suit who kinda talked like Captain Kirk before Captain Kirk was on.”
“No, that was Twilight Zone. That was Rod Serling. Tales From the Dark Side came after.”
Yeah, this is a perfect encapsulation of how terrible situations breed the most banal conversations.
When their neighbor appears in the form of a sheep, it’s another moment of hilarity but also indicative of how rumors spread quickly in small towns. Tucker is speaking to Billy:
“… Wait, did you see Edgar?”
“Jesus, yeah, I saw him.”
“Dude, I told you about that like six months ago. Didn’t I? Didn’t I tell you he was doing that with his livestock?”
“Yeah, so you were right. I owe you a case. But to get back to the important point here…”
And oh yeah, Edgar’s full name is Edgar Winter. Ha!
Billy and Tucker go to the local watering hole to see if they can get any information about what has happened. Theories float around about aliens and the government testing secret gas. Townspeople having secret affairs reveal their trysts when they show up in the bodies of their lovers with ensuing slapstick. The men sit around drinking and razzing Edgar about being a sheep-shagger. Then, when the men in the bodies of their wives and womenfolk and barn animals are well soused, the jukebox comes on with “Unchained Melody” (or at least I think that is what the song was):
The lyrics hit my brain like a sledgehammer. Something catches my throat and pricks at the edges of my eyes. I hear Tucker next to me sniffle, and I can see his lips moving. Despite myself, I start mumbling along, too. Didn’t even realize I knew this song until the words start falling outta my head.
Tucker looks at me and sings, “Are youuuuu…still miiiiiiiiiiiine?”
Floyd spins on his barstool to face us. “IIIIIIIIIIII need your loooooove.”
Joe Vickers flips his wife’s cheap blond hair back and yells the same up at the ceiling.
But even as this novel fairly drips with the ridiculous, and the most ridiculous scene being the dream sequence with Terry Bradshaw, this is silliness with a heart, a sad core of loss. Billy, Tucker and Julia move Tina to the barn to bury her and Billy, in his wife’s body, tries to find an appropriate outfit to wear to his wife’s funeral. In Tina’s body, he looks in her closet and picks out a dress he bought for her, a dress that had offended her, that proved how out of it Billy really was, and he had no idea why. It becomes clear to him when he puts on the dress.
So I put the dress on. Takes me five minutes to realize the stupid thing only has one shoulder strap. The other shoulder is bare. And it’s long in the back, but has a really short front that comes up to a slit.
And I can see my underwear.
It’s not until Billy is literally in Tina’s body that he understands how much he really failed her. Buying her inappropriate clothing, taking her for granted, not knowing the most basic things about her day, being so spaced out that she was able to put antifreeze in his beer and he didn’t even notice.
Billy realizes all of this in a sudden rush, after Terry Bradshaw comes to him in a dream and tells him that the government will switch everyone back soon, and the implications of this are not discussed explicitly, but the implied idea is that Billy will return to his dead body buried in the barn. But since Tina’s essence, her soul or consciousness or whatever it is that defines identity was in Billy when he died, there is no guarantee her essence will be able to return to her body. This is not Freaky Friday. This is the destruction of a family.
I ain’t in the dream no more. I’m back. I’m in that other dream again, the one where I’m Tina and Tina’s me. And I’m dead and buried and covered by a rusting hunk of junk in my neighbor’s barn and I’m a depressed mother who’s now a widow and a widower at the same time. I feel like I’ve lost a wife and a husband, ’cause when you get right down to it, that’s what happened.
I have two quarrels with this book. One, like many bizarro endeavors, it could have been edited a little better, but the problems are small, so really, maybe that isn’t a quarrel. My other issue with this book is the relative brevity. This discussion should make it clear that Lowe managed to create a complex novella but the actual text of the book covers less than 60 pages. The New Bizarro Author Series gives unproven writers a foot in the door – if they sell enough books from their first effort, they will have a chance to produce more books with Eraserhead. If they don’t make their sales goal, their first effort will be their last. It may put Lowe at a disadvantage that his novella is so short because one of the complaints I hear most often about the bizarro genre is that the books are costly given the amount of content. For a bibliomaniac like me that seldom is an issue (and now that I have a Kindle it matters even less) but I hope Lowe does not have too many problems selling this short book.
But here’s an incentive for people who may be on the fence about spending close to ten bucks on a book this slim: In the month of February, Steve Lowe is donating all of the profit he makes selling this book to a foster care charity. Click here to read all the details. So if you are on the fence about buying a copy, let this charitable endeavor tilt the scale in favor of purchasing it.
And again, I am giving away a copy of this book. All you have to do to enter to win a copy is leave me a comment on this entry. Contest runs today, 2/15/11 until 9:00 pm CST. Comment early, comment often!