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September 2000
 
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Curiosities

Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera by George Chappell (1930)

Gary Trudeau conducting a tour of Ronald Reagan's brain. J. G. Ballard flensing a drowned giant. Isaac Asimov orchestrating a fantastic bloodstream voyage. James Morrow towing the corpse of Jehovah.

What do all these expeditions--through cellular landscapes entered via shrinking or across enlarged physiognamies encountered as geography--have in common? Surely Jonathan Swift's accounts of Gulliver's Lilliputian and Brobdingnangian exploits figure somewhere in the literary morphic fields of these works. But a closer ancestor, one more likely to have been encountered by authors of a certain age, is George Chappell's Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, a profanely comic and bodily disrespectful tour through the helpless interior of an anonymous citizen.

Presented as the first-person scientific account of an unnamed explorer and his three companions, Through the Alimentary Canal is a continuously hilarious, linguistically inventive parody of two genres: the safari memoir and the layperson's medical compendium. After circumnavigating the exterior of their victim (not omitting the naughty bits), the explorers, without any technological fuss, simply slip through the "Oral Cavern" and before you can say "down the gullet" are riding their portable boat toward their ultimate destination of "Colon-sur-mer," through a surreal jungle environment populated by various tribes such as the savage Haemoglobins, and rich with such wildlife as heeby-geebies and gastroids. The visitors fish for phagocytes, carve their initials on the spine, and are entertained in the Peritoneum by the Great Omentum, a local rajah. Along the way, Chappell satirizes academia, Prohibition, religion, national pride, and our quirky mortal machinery.

Chappell (1877-1946) belonged to that great generation of humorists that included Benchley, Thurber, Perelman and Leacock, and wrote a number of lesser books under the persona of Dr. Traprock. But this slim imaginative masterpiece surely deserves resuscitation.

—Paul Di Filippo

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