Urgent health bulletins are issued, warning parents to beware of their children swallowing tiny magnets, which can lead to perforated bowels. The internet becomes fascinated by tales of a pea sprouting and growing in a man’s lung, or an aspirated piece of a plastic cup from Wendy’s causing two years’ worth of breathing trouble in an inattentive individual. The x-ray of a dog with an enormous kitchen knife occupying almost the whole length of its innards mesmerizes the random web-surfer’s eye. A video of Michel Lotito, known as “Monsieur Mangetout,” racks up a quarter-million views on YouTube.
The accidental or purposeful ingestion of weird objects seems an eternal, primal trope of the human condition, from the myth of Rhea convincing Cronos to swallow a stone in place of baby Zeus, to magical fishbones precipitating Sleeping Beauty-type comas in the Arabian Nights. In her new study of the odd things that find their way where they shouldn’t be, internally amongst humans, Mary Cappello brings a poet’s flair to her meditations on the queer symbolical import of the phenomenon. “It’s possible to feel the past in a way that we can never know the present. Time ripens inside objects…”
But she also adds a memoirist’s intimacy and a scientist’s precision, as she centers her tale around the career of Dr. Chevalier Jackson (1865-1958), eccentric laryngologist who dedicated his life to the medical removal of swallowed or aspirated “foreign bodies” from his patients, the resulting carefully preserved collection of which objects can be seen today at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, Cappello’s starting point for her journey “through the alimentary canal with gun and camera,” to quote the title of a humor book curiously coincidental with Dr. Jackson’s heyday.
Cappello crafts a creepy David-Cronenberg-worthy saga of the doctor’s youth, maturity, and old age, tapping into his best-selling 1938 autobiography for salient details, as well as a wealth of other historical sources. We watch as the effects of childhood bullying determine the youngster’s choice of vocation. We follow his invention of an unprecedented oral toolkit—esophagoscope and bronchoscope, among other devices. We see the pamphleteering guardian of public safety, the artist behind some truly curious anatomical sketches, the quasi-anorexic and neurotic married man. And throughout, we get Cappello’s musings on her own brushes with swallowing mishaps, as well as her investigations into the wider psychosocial realm of mouth disasters. In the end, Cappello’s fine writing creates a book that goes down very easy.
Might I playfully suggest that any giftgivers of Swallow pair it with either Choke by Chuck Palahniuk, or Liz Jensen’s The Paper Eater?
-PAUL DI FILIPPO
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.