31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 16: “Testicular Cancer vs. The Behemoth” by Adam Marek

May 16, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From Instruction Manual for Swallowing

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as television stations the world over were showing a seemingly endless loop of the second plane piercing the World Trade Center tower, one of the comments repeated with such frequency that it quickly took on the mantle of cliché was, “It looks like something from a movie.” Hollywood had become so sophisticated in its representations of mass chaos, simultaneous with a general disbelief that anything of such magnitude could possibly occur in the real world (at least, the real world of the privileged and technologically superior West), that the initial reaction to the events of that blue September morning amounted to a stark disbelief, a feeling that the images parading across the screen must be fictitious.

The echoes of 9/11 in Adam Marek’s story, about a man named Austin, who discovers he has testicular cancer on the same day that a giant, lizard-like beast attacks his home city, may or may not be coincidental, but the author includes certain elements that invite the comparison. Chief among these is the name of the restaurant where Molly, Austin’s girlfriend, takes refuge in the wake of the monster’s assault. The restaurant is called Osma’s, and it’s difficult to believe that the one-letter separation from the name of the mastermind behind the 9/11 atrocity is unintentional.

Moreover, when Austin, having just been diagnosed, arrives at his sister’s apartment to break the news to her, he finds his sister and their parents gathered around the television, watching what appears to be a cinema verité movie: “He looked at the television again. Why are they watching this stupid programme? The film was done in a real-time docu-drama style. Jerky camera movements, shot on video to make it look like the news. Icons in the corner of the screen. Panicked anchorwoman. Everything.” If the enormity of a gigantic, Godzillaesque creature laying waste to Austin’s city is too difficult to comprehend, it is complicated by a zeitgeist that includes the blurring of the line between fiction and reality in such documentary manqué fare as The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Rec.

However, Austin’s inability to comprehend the actuality of the circumstances befalling his urban surroundings is also explicable by his utterly understandable absorption in his own diagnosis. How completely does the world contract into a single, malignant aspect in the wake of a medical judgment that sounds like a coarsely delivered death sentence? When Austin leaves his doctor’s office, he is confronted by scenes of disarray, but they fail to register on him, so wrapped up is he in the personally momentous news he has just received:

Outside, the sun was baking the street, melting ice-lollies, making people crazy. Austin watched the pavement as he walked. He was half-aware of people running past him, of screams and exclamations. Two cars collided, and then a third drove into them, but Austin barely noticed. The ground shook again, and he stumbled.

Neither is Austin’s specific diagnosis accidental. He initially ignores the signs of trouble because he is afraid of a positive diagnosis, and because he has recently embarked on a relationship with Molly, and does not want to endanger his sexual potency in the wake of his nascent love affair:

He knew if he went to the doctor, he’d have it chopped off. And he wondered what would happen to his sex drive if he only had one ball, or no balls? What if they had to remove both? So he left it. He would go next week when things weren’t so hectic at work, when he’d been with Molly for a little longer. They’d been together for less than a year. It was too soon to be going to her with things growing on his balls.

When Austin realizes that the images on his sister’s television represent the reality unfolding outside her apartment window, he determines to cross the city and rescue his girlfriend, who is trapped in the area being ravaged by the creature. This act is reckless and intemperate, but it is also a manifestation of the masculine imperative he feels at risk of losing to cancer, even before the illness claims his life. When he eventually reaches the zone of devastation, he appropriates a machine gun from a dead soldier and shoots the lizard – appropriately enough – in the groin.

All of this is presented in the manner of high comedy, burlesquing a kind of Michael Bay–inspired machismo that prizes courage, guts, and balls above all else. But the beating heart of Marek’s story involves a collision between tenuous masculinity and the painful, quivering result of a terrifying and debilitating medical diagnosis. When the ground shakes in the story’s opening sentence, it could be attributable to the marauding lizard – or to something more quotidian, but equally catastrophic.

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