Muscle Memory by Steve Lowe

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

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.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

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!

31 thoughts on “Muscle Memory by Steve Lowe

  1. Body switching is one of those tropes I’ve gotten super tired of thanks to a lot of not great fanfiction for various other things. But this seems like a much more fascinating take on all of it. I’m deeply intrigued now. (Also I have huge mad respect for foster parents.)

  2. This sounds remarkably heart-wrenching for a work of bizarro fiction. It also sounds like it has much less of the over-the-top gross-out stuff that so much bizarro seems to wallow in, and while I don’t mind that to a point, I can only take so much. Yet another one to add to my to-read list.

    1. I think about that sometimes but I know crapping in a box would make me very unhappy so I’d probably switch with Mr. Oddbooks because if I switched with Cicero I would have to puke on the carpet and wallow in an unseemly way.

  3. I’m always down for free books, Bizarro or otherwise. By the way, Odd Book Reading Lady, I love you. I love you so much. Not because I’m trying to get a free book, but because of your review of mine. I would- no, make that will- kiss you.

    1. Dude, you just threatened to kiss an old lady! You will face severe mockery from your peers should you get infected with old lady germs.

      Your book really did make me feel as if I had gone a little crazy. I seriously had moments of mild paranoia reading it. It was an amazing book in all respects.

  4. I always read your book reviews, but I have never had the pleasure of reading an actually bizzaro title.
    That said, I hope I win something this week.

    1. Three more giveaways this week, Jenn so you may won something. And if February doesn’t come through, I’m cobbling something together next month for a zombie themed week. I mean, I don’t want it to seem like I am buying your readership but free books are free books, no?

  5. Heard about this contest thingy through the grapevine and gosh, this is a really great review. I’m gonna have to subscribe to this blog.

    The Serlings are old family friends. Rod died before I was born, but I get to hear stories about the guy which is pretty cool.

    1. I remember Found Magazine published a bunch of Rod Serling’s letters that were inexplicably discovered on a city bus, if I recall correctly. There was an amazingly hostile and snarky exchange he had with a former classmate. Absolutely hilarious. He’s one of those men I wish I had met before he died. Rod Serling, Johnny Cash and Kurt Vonnegut. I envy your connection to him.

  6. Often within the Bizarro genre, using some of the most hackneyed plot devices (switching bodies, women killing their family members) will produce the most innovative stories. One of those paradoxes that makes beguiling reading.

    1. I think the deliberate inversion of the trite is what works for me. It’s a form of mockery that is almost an homage. I think…

  7. This is a great article. I love stupid conversations in bad situations. That alone kinda makes me want to read this now 🙂

          1. Will we have to buy new clothes to go? Also, will there be a special room so us shut-ins can go hide when people try to talk to us? If I can wear my old bathrobe and hide frequently, I may consider it.

  8. Wow, I had read the description of this book on but it didn’t quite grab my attention until your review, because it explains it in a much better fashion. I’ve read a lot of “body-switch” type of plots, but never that includes a whole town switching bodies. Add to the mix, bestiality and Terry Bradshaw…you’re clearly looking at a riot of a book! Thanks for hosting the giveaways, yet again! 🙂

  9. This intrigues me enough that I will leave a comment here even though I missed the drawing. 😉

    I think I like the idea of a bizarro situation bringing out what is most human and real in people. I will have to read this, even knowing that I’ll wish it were far longer.

    Celeste sleeps on my pillow, so no doubt I’d end up switched with her. I’d like that, because I’d like to know how she feels, really, after the radioactive iodine therapy and find out if I do treat her as if she has the intelligence that she does. (And she could find out why I get so annoyed when she knocks things onto the floor with her tail.)

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