While reading Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole, I’m sure many of you, like myself, felt a sense of disjointedness and confusion upon reading many of the strange hallucinatory passages throughout. That’s why I want to concentrate on perhaps the most insightful and coherent conversation that I found in the entire book, as I think it opens up many points of discussion as to why Ruth and Perry are the way they are. I also believe it provides another theory for what happens at the end of the book. Since there are no page numbers, I’ll do my best to describe the scene so that you can follow along while you read. It is a conversation that occurs between Ruth and Perry toward the beginning of the novel while they are hanging upside down from the monkey bars in the middle of the night right before they get into the fight with Pogie and his friends.
This is really the most revealing passage about the inner workings of the step-siblings’ minds and their reliance on each other as an outlet for their mental delusions. Their conversation begins with the discussion of their grandma’s accident on the couch and Ruth asking Perry, “And you know what it’s like to lose control of yourself, right?” This suggests that the pair might have inherited their loss of control from their grandmother and that Ruth knows about Perry’s psychological meanderings, which she brings up in the next panel when she asks him, “How is the wizard?” Perry’s response is completely unrestrained, as though he is not embarrassed to discuss his problems with her because he feels he can trust her and be open with her. They talk about this spectral wizard as though it is nothing out of the ordinary, just another daily occurrence in their eccentric world.
As Perry begins to complain about his lack of ability to make the wizard go away, Ruth begins to open up about her obsession with arranging the jars of dead insects on her shelf. “Sometimes I feel like I can open some magical gateway if I can discover the precise order for my shelf,” she exclaims, exasperatedly as I imagine. Harking back to this sentence when observing the end of the novel, it might be possible that Ruth’s final hallucination of flying out of the windows to join the cicadas was the result of finally unlocking the perfect arrangement for her shelf and opening this magical gateway. Powell obviously wants to draw attention to the shelf as we see Ruth float out of her window, because we see the disappearance and reappearance of the items occupying it several times. Maybe this was his way of saying that the culmination of Ruth’s schizophrenia coincided with the satisfaction of being able to precisely arrange the shelf she had become so obsessed with.
The conversation ends on the bottom right panel where we find Perry questioning whether it’s their house or their family has that has left this deep psychological impression on them. Ruth counters that argument with what she deems the logical reasoning “that nobody else looks and listens…we catch them, receive them.” She believes that their hyper observant minds have been chosen to absorb this seemingly important information. Ruth and Perry’s discussion and contemplation of their psychological woes opens up a whole new aspect of their mental struggles and allows the reader to begin to see things from their perspective. Looking back through the book, this has actually become my favorite part, because for so much of it the reader is put into the position of omniscient observer and has to try to puzzle through what is going on, but here, we plainly see exactly what is going through the teenagers’ heads, allowing us to make insights into the more enigmatic elements of the story.