The Book of Freaks
by Jamie Iredell
A review by Chris Bundy
Future Tense Books 136 pages. $11
B for Book Review
—a form of literary criticism in which a book is analyzed based on content, style, and merit. It is often carried out in periodicals, some of which might be online and include other literary works such as fiction, poetry, essays, art, and interviews. The book review length may vary from a single paragraph to a significant essay.
Book reviews can be an assessment of the book’s literary merit or its illumination of a particular topic. The book review can also be employed to reveal the book reviewer’s intellect on a number of subjects, knowledge of and affection for the author and/or genre, or to explore the book reviewer’s distaste for the author and/or the genre.
A for Alphabet
The Book of Freaks insists on a combination of division and harmony, like the contemporary novel-in-stories, which contains standalone stories unified by reoccurring characters or a common setting. While Jamie Iredell shuns those two strategies, the book still holds together, rather, fuses as one. Consider, as comparison, the preludes and fugues of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, a work noted for its structural regularities yet broad array of styles. Iredell’s Freaks succeeds similarly by maintaining a recognizable structure in his A to Z approach, much as Bach composed his music using familiar Baroque melodies that explore the entire range of all 24 major and minor keys, i.e., subjects any student of music would recognize. Freaks begins with A (the “Acknowledgements” page) and ends with Z (“Ze-end”), attempting, it seems, to incorporate the entire range of the known world, each entry describing a “freak” of some sort. The A to Z construction is a strategy for organization—it is the only element of the book that provides us a way forward. The novelty of the structure is at first comforting and even amusing, and, for the most part, there is order in this chaos. Iredell’s entries are marked by multiple and varied voices, each held together by a central argument. For Iredell, the “freaks” themselves bind from A to Z. Bach’s individual numbers—from C major to B flat minor—are bound by a “well-tempered” tuning system in which all keys are in tune with one another. Iredell too links his numbers with the argument that we are the freaks, unique as individual numbers but united under the freak flag nonetheless, all in tune with one another.
P is for Prose. Poems.
Freaks allows you to linger in its sentences while pushing you forward with both narrative and nonsequitur, more often than not in the same section. “Chicken Fried Steak” opens with a description of that all-American favorite, moves quickly to introduce Jesse, a man not unlikely to show up in a Larry Brown short story, and ends with what does not follow, a description of snowboarders whooping down a nearby mountain. In between, Jesse buys some Skittles in a biker bar with the only money he has, foregoing the chicken fried steak he dreams of.
“There had been a rash of car break-ins. Glass littered the streetsides like millions of diamonds. The air hung cold, the sky white, and a few snowflakes fluttered down. The last of Jesse’s Skittles got so cold they hurt his teeth when he crunched into them.”
The paragraph’s power resides in both its lyricism and its depiction of Jesse as he moves from the biker bar where he buys his Skittles and outside to a memory of an ex-girlfriend back to chicken fried steak and finally on to our seemingly arbitrary snowboarders. By the end of this typically-short section, we realize that the arbitrary is not at all—all is woven into the fabric of this brief glimpse of Jesse’s world, even the snowboarders who stand in joyful contrast to Jesse’s melancholy stroll and Skittle crunching.
G for Guidebook
In the event you feel lost in Freaks, wondering which way to turn (even if there are alphabetized guide posts, you may feel a sense of disorientation), then Iredell includes “Front Matter” to help you navigate the text, a guidebook for the guidebook. Of course, you’re on your own until you get to F.
“You should study every subject in this book. To diffuse the knowledge of FREAKS is the professed design of the following work. . . . Instead of dismembering the FREAKS of Earth, by attempting to treat them intelligibly under a multitude of technical terms, they have digested the principles of every FREAK in the form of systems or distinct treaties, and explained the terms as they occur in the order of the alphabet, with references to the classifications to which they belong.”
C for Compiler
Iredell is at once slave to his form, this alphabetized list, and liberated by his disregard for the reader’s expectations, what feels occasionally like a middle finger to the reader, and an exploration of what an exploration of subject can be. His distinctive voice—a mixture of a formal, disembodied narrator peering into the goddamnedest places on earth—wobbles between precision and misfire. In the stronger entries, Iredell points out the absurd, the ironic, and the silly without giggling at his own cleverness, an objective compiler of the world’s oddities. In the weaker sections, we either feel Iredell sneer or he is subverted by the same cleverness.
Y for Yuerba Buenians, et al.
The opening promises a telling tale of historical determination:
“Yerba Buenians are an extinct race that met disaster after filling in the primary cove upon which their modest settlement was initially built with their mostly unused names.”
We recognize the arcane subject, and even some of the playfulness, but miss the pathos.
Of course, attempting to find satisfaction in precedent here is futile. The author promises nothing of the sort. That Iredell ignores much of the world for his esoteric list of “freaks” is the larger beauty of even some of the weaker entries.
G for Gag
In “Graphic Novel, The,” we get an illustration of a typical graphic panel—an empty square. But then Iredell asks us to look more closely to see that the empty square actually contains a snow-covered field in which “very little happens.” Here the reader might worry that under W we will find a minimalist illustration and caption that reads “ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch.” The novelty of his arbitrary subject matter vanishes, the straight man replaced by a well-worn gag. When an entire section is devoted to “Blurbs” for the book, many of them as absurd as sections of the book, including an inventory of typical blurb jargon beginning with “acrobatic” and concluding with “zany,” two words that have or will probably be used to describe this book, we nod in agreement.
F for Freaks
So as not to seem disingenuous, there are also actual freaks in Iredell’s book. In “Autofellate,” we are introduced to an entire line-up of freakshow freaks in a bar, from Piss Puddles the Clown, who gargles the chorus to “My Sharona” with his own piss, and a woman who performs a light-bulb-in-the-pussy-trick.
This is the freakshow of note, the one in which we, as us, watch from behind a shield of plexiglass to protect us from them, so that we go away feeling grateful for our banal lives. But Iredell seems to suggest that we are not so far removed from these freaks either.
Freaks found in this book also include:
a bearded lady (of course)
people who walk on their hands
an armless wonder
those with large and rapidly-growing breasts
a man with a shoe for a head
a man with a tiny head (aka, microcephalic)
White People, and
Americans (God Bless).
S for State of Wonder
Iredell often plays with the obvious, yet what we fail to recognize as wondrous and strange. See the entry under “What We Call Life.”
“In life people stand on beaches under white clouds. They all stare at the clouds, though there’s nothing about the clouds that makes a discernable shape or could be in any way interesting. Some say that this was before language, but those making this distinction assume a false sense of superiority, which is almost always rousted out by way of their automobile choices and style of dress. This is universally true of domestically-produced autos and imported clothing. What is perhaps most notable, however, is viewing the subjects in the convenience store. There aren’t any beaches in this state. But if there were, even these people would stand around like those staring at clouds, unsure of what beer to choose.”
Iredell’s depiction of humans in the haze of quotidian states staring up at the sky in search of security underscores our need to find meaning even in our most mundane moments.
F for False Sense of Security
In the midst of the irony and wit, there is a plaintive quality to the everyday illustrations of lives lived. Iredell finds the “real mystery” not in the headlines, but in the bedroom shadows and the capricious nature of life itself, in which at any moment our system of order, our perceived patterns might be scrambled, precisely because there is no order, only metaphor, that this book, like life, is merely a contrivance, a construct that gives us a sense of security: our lives may be changed forever by nothing more than a falling tree.
C for Cumulative
By the end, there is a surprising cumulative effect, a feeling that the A to Z construction was not nearly as arbitrary as first expected.
N for None of the Above
Freaks, an encyclopedia of the everyday, does not allow for the standard book review. There is no sequence of events with which to unfold narrative and pull us through a summary review. There is no life to examine, unless we consider all life, for Freaks is that kind of book—a panorama that swings between the lines of American life. There is no obvious theme, unless you go for everything, e.g., “a connected series of conclusions deduced from self-evident or previously discovered principles.” There is no protagonist to root for, no lush setting to calm us. How does one then assess an entry like this sample from the B section, “Big Legs,” which begins: “Breached out the birth canal massive legs first, legs like gas planets, in leg-shape” and follows with metaphors in which her big legs become Studebakers? Is this poetry? Fiction?
We read on out of simple curiosity, like Alice down her rabbit hole.
Chris Bundy’s stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and magazines, from Glimmer Train and Atlanta Magazine to DIAGRAM and The Collagist. He teaches writing and literature at Savannah College of Art & Design-Atlanta.