Disease, Sarah Tolmie (Aqueduct Press 978-1619761933, 120pp, $12.00, tp) August 2020.
Sarah Tolmie’s Disease is a strangely funny book about fictitious diseases and psychological conditions. Presented in a scholarly tone that resembles a series of academic case studies, this book looks at some bizarre ailments that range from scavenging, a psychological affliction in which people compulsively move into old houses, to a poor guy who developed an allergy to comedy.
Tolmie’s imagination runs wild in this book. There are new diseases being discovered all the time, as the COVID-19 pandemic so violently reminded the world, but the illnesses presented in Disease are not only new but also quite strange, unique in their symptomatology, and fun to read about. For example, a man wakes up one day to find out he is made of glass, a poor young women suffers from “chronic misrecognition” – a disease that makes others confuse her with a variety of people, both male and female – and a man is followed by animals wherever he goes. Tolmie’s serious tone and the heartbreaking nature of some of the diseases contrast with the humor behind some of the cases presented. For example, the woman suffering from chronic misrecognition is at a coffee shop when people confuse her with the movie star Jackie Chan. Hilarity ensues.
Disease has superb pacing, and the space dedicated to each illness ranges from a single paragraph to a few pages, but never more. This allows Tolmie to pack a lot into a relatively short book. There is almost no character development and there’s no dialogue, but each look at a different disease reads like a self-contained narrative. Here’s the case of a man suffering from “acquired former expertise”:
Patient N., a 50-year-old man of Dominican heritage, with no cultural exposure to the art of yodeling, sitting at an arena watching a hockey game, suddenly found himself, instead of the customary yelling and swearing, emitting long articulated shrieks in E, which were soon identified by other patrons to be yodels. He was unable to thank them, or to speak at all, at the time, as ever more complex ululations burst uncontrollably from his mouth. He fled his seat, and the building, and found his relief that the yodels diminished and finally ceased approximately half way across the parking lot. The arena was found to have recently hosted the Southwestern Ontario Junior Yodeling Finals. Patient N., an avid hockey fan and supporter of his local club, was forced to give up his season tickets to the venue.
It’s not okay to laugh at someone else’s misfortune, but this collection of strange phenomena makes it okay. The beauty of Disease is that it’s packed with reminders of just how fragile human bodies and psyches are, but it simultaneously provokes laughter, which is one of the best medicines in the world.
Disease is part of Aqueduct Press’s Conversation Pieces series. The books published under this project celebrate “the speculations and visions of the grand conversation of feminist” science fiction. Those familiar with the series will enjoy this witty, wildly imaginative entry. Those unfamiliar with it will find in Tolmie’s book a perfect entry into the series. Also, while the feminist discourse isn’t blatant, it is brilliantly scattered throughout the book. For example, gender differences are pointed at under the discussion of privacy: “Privacy is a disease of men. Women throughout recorded history have been less subject to it, volitionally speaking, which explains the wide variety of practices designed to enforce it eternally or superficially by means of unrevealing dress.”
With a great mixture of funny, sad, and creepy, Disease is a satisfying read that inhabits the interstitial space between humor, horror, and science fiction. Its strange format, formal tone, and array of short narratives showcase Tolmie’s talent and prove that a great imagination and a sense of humor can turn even maladies into great entertainment.
Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
This review and more like it in the April 2021 issue of Locus.
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