The Book of Freaks
Editor Staff, Fiction, April 1st, 2011
The Book of Freaks (Jamie Iredell, Future Tense Books 2011, 134 pages)
The Book of Freaks is an encyclopedia of the quotidian, but Iredell takes the most mundane pieces of our everyday embarrassing and humiliating existence and gives them a safe place to breathe and to be reflected upon. Often laugh-out-loud funny but just as often poignant and sometimes both at once, Iredell has produced an absolute masterpiece of the absurd and surreal – a faux-encyclopedia that contains pieces of everything and everyone you have ever encountered in your life. And it’s one of the most entertaining and exciting and surprising and strange and wonderful and downright funny books I’ve ever read. Ever.
Iredell takes the straight and Understood-As-The-Authoritative-Point-Of-View encyclopedic form and uses his own deadpan delivery to turn it into a darkly comic looking glass into the recesses of American life. And although it is clearly a book about freaks, it’s not pointed towards any one thing or type, although still wonderfully specific and constrained but with the tone that maintains that “scientific” sterility about its subjects. It reads like a butterfly or insect collector’s glass box of beautiful formerly-living creatures now with wings pinned down and life removed, yet somehow still absolutely stunning and although snuffed of life, loved by its collector.
Iredell’s style really catapults this book into “instant classic” territory for the lover of satire. It deserves comparison against the great books of satire like Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas (the publisher’s own astute comparison) or Voltaire’s Candide or Heller’s Catch 22, but it’s also got the silliness of classics like Airplane! combined with the sober absurdity of Dr. Strangelove and the starkness of Gummo but in encyclopedic form. Iredell never resorts to simplistic mocking, nor does Iredell ever catalog or dissect an easy target.
He even uses the expected pages in any book release as entries in this faux-encyclopedia – the book’s index, filed under “Index” doesn’t appear until page 71, after the “H’s.” The copyright, filled under “Copyright” of course, appears on page 31 with all the necessary copyright information. “Dedication” comes a few pages later (after the “C’s” with just a single line of dedication). And there is something very interesting that happens when Iredell pulls apart these expected elements of the book form and isolates them in this glassed-in collection of life pinned down to the page for examination – it takes these dead ideas that no longer retain the meaning and impact they once did, and brings them back to life but with a new subtext, a new meaning, a new life.
Iredell’s own prose is playfully unexpected, flipping form constraints on their head for absolutely stunning effect with rich, dense and endlessly readable, quotable and moving prose. And most importantly, fun, it’s fun to read – it’s intellectually satisfying too, but it pummels you in the gut with fun long before that. He rewards the reader for paying attention and keeps the reader on his or her toes with constant surprises in form, breaks in point of view, he kills his own jokes, he builds to a climax and then pulls the rug out from under the reader to great effect. Take one of my favorite lines from “Boys” (an entry about the adolescent male):
The boy decided to run away. Before he ran away he slipped on his Superman Underoos, and stuffed his High Sierra backpack with his Batman Underoos and a pair of socks, and other details that would normally be left out.
Or take the “Eagle Scout” entry, my favorite entry in the volume — too detailed and lengthy to reprint here — Iredell takes the path of boyhood to manhood and breaks it down by Boy Scout Ranking starting with “The Rank of Boy Scout” through “The Rank of Eagle.” As a Boy Scout our Young Male is unaware of the opposite gender and is starting to think about baseball, he has:
…tennis shoes’ lips (Reebok high tops) [that] flop while walking. Hair is a massive helmet, and should the head meet – as it often will – the points of rocks, the mesh of curls act as a cushion against damage.
Then by the time our Young Male is an Eagle Scout, he is interested in female chests and drinking booze:
The last rank is the door to a bar. The bar holds up a sign reading “WE ID.” The ID is the same as the collective soul of the river. The girlfriend’s mouth claims the ID, the lips lipping around the D, closing up the I. This, ultimately, makes the girlfriend the enemy, and the bar a friend.
Iredell takes the tone and point of view of a prescriptivist, like any good scientist and clearly defines ourselves to us, pins us down and dissects us. We’re all freaks in Iredell’s view, but so is he, so is the book, so is the word “Freak,” so is the discussion of the book (See the “Blurbs” section on page 15 with all the blurbs collected for this book’s release). One gets the feeling like Iredell will need to add a “Review” chapter to this work in upcoming and updated editions. As well as a “Second Edition” chapter. And a “Updated Edition” chapter. I hope so; I would love for The Book of Freaks to be released yearly as an updated and authoritative reference volume or series of volumes available at my local grocery stores replacing the Funk and Wagnells encyclopedias.
Read Gabe Blackwell’s ONE NOTE WITH JAMIE IREDELL installment, here on Smalldoggies.
The Book of Freaks by Jamie Iredell: Official Book Trailer Video