The Book of Freaks

By Jamie Iredell

Future Tense
February 2011
137 pages


Reviewed by Tom DeBeauchamp


At just over ninety entries, Jamie Iredell's The Book of Freaks is one of the shortest encyclopedias ever written. It is not an exhaustive catalog of all possible variations of the freak. It does not contain pictures of freaks or diagrams of their freakish postures, or even the phonetic spelling or the origins of the names of freaks. Hollowed out, The Book of Freaks makes a starveling bong-house indeed. It won't prop open your back door, your front door, your bedroom door, or the door to your garage. Most likely it won't help with your fifth-grader's essay on Mesopotamia. In seriousness, it fails as a reference book. Happily, it is perfectly successful otherwise.

To be sure, The Book of Freaks does contain freaks. If you take the definition offered by "the compilers of this volume," freaks "can be defined [post-Rick James, post-endearing-jocularity] as nearly any and all humans as they exist on Earth."  With that, the compilers set up a project of such wide scope and ponderous immensity that they cannot possibly hope to do anything but fail. And that's part of the joke: the compilers burrow into such unlikely entries as "Boys," "Eagle Scout," "Fuckers," "Girls," "Japanese, The," and "White People," implying with each strange, new tangent an infinite of freaks unnamed. We are all freaks, the compilers tell us, only to clarify, if only slightly, their anti-definition.  Freaks must be "alive, living, breathing, cells dividing and dying," they say in "Front Matter." Freaks use "a form of complex linguistics." They are characterized by their response to "external stimuli, the capability for reproduction, general homeostasis, and the ability to grow and respond to changes in external environments, i.e., to adapt." The compilers give us a tiny little book and fill it with everything. Then they take the everything they gave us and limit it to growing and change.

Though the compilers define freaks as human beings, they frequently plant the freak flag in people's pieces. Rather than the aperture you'd expect, the entry for "Asshole" describes a particular, insufferably faux-hawked and spitting human person. Though the usage here is common enough, the style of its synechdoche appears elsewhere and often: note the references to "Big Legs," "old back, This," "Thick Hair," and "Tiny Head." These entries leapfrog from their titular locus to give the impression of an entire life. It's as if the compilers are saying, not only is everyone a freak, but all of everyone is a freak. Entries like "Action Film, The" and "Literary Novel, The," expand the definition one step further.  Not only is it everyone and all of everyone who are freaks, but everyone, all of everyone, and all produced by everyone and all of everyone.

The coy give and take of such defining goes deeper and gets more interesting when you look at the structure of the book qua book in its entirety. The ordinarily book-y material is alphabetized in with the rest of the entries. Iredell's very kind "Acknowledgements" is page one, which makes sense. "Title Page," though, is missing for the first hundred plus pages, appearing three entries after "Second Title Page." Rather than being usefully arranged at the back or the front of the book, "Index" fits in just about dead center. The effect of this leveling, of standing the utilitarian data of "Front Matter" just before "Fuckers," or "Dedication" between "Deaf" and "Dicephalic Parapagus," is that the compilers and The Book of Freaks mingle with, and become, freaks themselves, entry-less entries in their own encyclopedia. What is normally an unexamined, unconscious division of text into functional and fictional, the baggage and the traveler, the copyright and the denouement, is rearranged and laid out flat.

There is no through-composed, linear narrative in The Book of Freaks. Rather, a harmony of gestures and associations resonates to construct a character for the book. It has its habits and its connections, its stylistic repetitions. You see it in the way the entries answer themselves and each other, but also in the way that they reach past the covers of the book into reality and communicate doubtful facts. Did Punky Brewster survive gigantomastia? Did Hieronymous Bosch paint an "Hawaiian Triptych?" Whether or not The Book of Freaks is true, is immaterial. By alluding, truly or falsely, to these things, it makes them another kind of entry-less entry, and by extension, exposes all of reality to the same. That is, The Book of Freaks is full of freaks, it is a freak, but so are you, you're a freak, you're surrounded by freaks, and you're full of them too.