Review: Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye, by Paul Tremblay

donkey_final>>Published: July 2012

>>Finally got around to it: December 2012

“The idiots are shutting off this part of the fence. They’ll beep us when they’re ready.”

I notice angry-proletariat-guy Jonah is back. But I don’t say anything, I just nod, and stare at the fence. Wonder how far I can run before security nabs me; nabs being a more pleasant word than the phrase summarily executed. Let’s pretend I’m able to make it past the initial hurdle of the fence and Farm security, how would I make it through the checkpoints and into City?

Jonah says, “What a fucking mess, huh? We’ll have to wash the blood and shit off the fence, and look, his belly split. We’ll have to shovel all that fucking goo up, too. Goddamn donkey. My mother used to call a shit-job, ‘swallowing a donkey’s eye.’ Anything that you had to do but was the last thing you or anyone else wanted to be doing, she’d say, ‘I guess you just gotta swallow the donkey’s eye.’”

Then he winks. Jonah actually winks at me. I hear the first piece of any real information about the guy who I’ve shared more hours with than anyone this side of my mother, and then he gives me a smart-ass wink. I want to punch him, render him unconscious, then maybe hug him before I jump through the fence.

***

Paul Tremblay’s Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye is a madcap assortment of social stereotypes taken to their worst possible extremes, stitched together by a weird, oftentimes fetishistic, Wonderland-by-way-of-Oz family drama.

In the future world-in-a-bubble of Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye, Farm, with its electrified white-picket perimeter fence, is a mega-conglomerate supplying the busy, bustling City with food and resources, while those unable to survive financially in City become homeless and are deported to Pier, where they are more or less sent to die. When our nameless narrator takes a bite from an apple not meant for him, thus breaking a commandment—er, rule of Farm, his life is quickly upended. Following a donkey-primed terrorist attack by the organization Farm Animal Revolution Today (yep, F.A.R.T.) he embarks on a strange journey to find his mother, filtered through overnight mayoral campaigns and Tweedle Dee/Tweedle Dum campaign managers, starring in his own reality television program, and hospice care with his over-sexed, abandoning, psychic priest of a father.

Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye is a joyfully ridiculous, almost Python-esque parody of a dystopia. The relationship between Farm and City is deliberately on the nose; from the animal sounds that are manufactured to provide more authenticity than if they were to come from the animals themselves, to the calculated fall ratio of apples from apple trees and the way Farm tours for City folk treat the Farm workers as part of the attraction, everything in Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye seems engineered to give the illusion of normalcy, of expectation, in a world gone to shit. This is further exemplified in the black-white dichotomy of most interactions—how everything seems transformed into a circus of the surreal via the most basic emotional and/or social resources.

The protection and financial security offered by employment—internment—with Farm carries with it obvious Eden symbolism. And of course, biting the apple, choosing to ignore the established rules and challenge the hierarchy, means exile by way of death. The world outside of Farm—City, Dump, Pier, Home—is segregated, split into inharmonious pockets without the safety and day-to-day-do-your-job-and-fly-right mentality of Farm life. The rural life provides, the urban life destroys, breaking individuals down into compost, to creatures of want with no ability to temper their desires or their emotions.

This rather blunt symbolism is made more palpable by Tremblay’s darkly comic writing and ADHD-style storytelling; this is a novel of tangents—of ideas introduced, and not necessarily forgotten, but quickly moved on from to further illustrate our very social compulsion for immediate gratification and constant change when things don’t exactly go our way. Tremblay’s world is a theatre of the absurd, distorted through a lens of what-may-be-but-let’s-sure-as-fuck-hope-to-avoid.

Tying it all together is the narrator’s quest for his mother. Through brief flashbacks of their life together in City, before the narrator signed up with Farm (as if he were joining the army), Tremblay offers shadows of a past the narrator both seeks to better understand and to continue to run from. The journey—from abandoning one’s beginnings and returning to them a changed man (and, somehow, a mayor)—is in many ways an exaggeration of the family dynamic, of distance erected by way of literal walls behind which the Wizard sits, and emotional ones—of an inability to do right by one’s creations, abandoning them to instead become a saviour to others.

Similar in many ways to his collection of short stories In The Mean Time, with Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye Tremblay seems less interested in the construction of a densely plotted narrative and more intrigued by finding new, strange, and unexpected ways to pick away at the dead skin of his characters, revealing layers upon layers of psychosis resting just beneath the surface. In his shorter narratives, I found this method to be jarring; in this novel, with its hyperactive self-awareness and by giving his narrator some room to breathe, the same approach is exciting and frequently hilarious.

Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye is not always original in the symbolism through which it explores its broader themes, but the manner in which Tremblay bounces from one idea to the next, never lingering too long or overstaying any one idea’s welcome, is consistently engaging, funny, and perhaps more important than anything else, it is never dull—not in the slightest.

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