Monday, March 28, 2011

Surprises, pleasant

One of the books I've enjoyed most this year* is Jamie Iredell's The Book of Freaks. I knew of Iredell from his first book, Prose. Poems. A Novel, which Andrew Wessels, in the review he wrote for me for the Quarterly Conversation, praised as "A singular, American story. A singular, American poem." The title alone--bet-hedging as all get-out--would seem to make that book worth opening, but ultimately I didn't think Prose. Poems. A Novel. was for me, for reasons Andrew noted:
Friends, alcohol, and locations are all described and interacted with but fade in and out without leaving a mark on the narrator. He is not upset that the Summit Saloon closes. That’s just the way it is. He is not upset that he has only felt a part of something a few times in his life. That’s just the way it is. The poems are not an attempt to create meaning, which would just be a lie. They are recognitions of the reality of the narrator’s life and situation. And the reality of being American is movement and change.
It would actually be hard to more perfectly describe the opposite of my experience: I've lived in the same house for more than a decade, with my wife, while working for the same employer the whole time. Change and drama (to say nothing of drugs) are not for me.

Andrew's appreciation of that book, however, was enough to make me open The Book of Freaks, and I'm so glad I did. I've drawn on the book over in my Tumblr annex in recent days, and as I've done so, I've found that the hard part isn't finding bits to quote-it's keeping myself from quoting the whole book. Arranged alphabetically, like a dictionary or handbook, The Book of Freaks reminds me of nothing so much as a cracked, contemporary Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon--only, one written by a Sei Shonagon who, rather than being a bit petty and superficial (yet brilliant) is instead cranky, crazy, and ironic, and who almost certainly counts himself as one of the freaks of his title.

His entry for "Hangnail, A" is a good example of his wandering, goofily associative technique:
When you find this loose piece of skin on your fingertips, rip it back, the skin trickle rippling the forearm. A blood globe reflects irises, blue, and with the surrounding eye whites, think of July 4th: the fog-dappled Marina beach sand that wound its way up the shorts and ground the thigh skin to tenderized red. That fucking surfer asshole with teeth for a head said, "You walk like you've got a stick up your ass." Knives slipped into pants and stones hefted at Ford pickups zipping past the walked route homeward from the school bus stop. That sleeveless jean jacket cocksucker's hair dripping mullet grease popped a zit when the blade flicked his wrist and the slice welled red. The stickiness congealing like a hangnail. the wife says, lotion-up, Vaseline that shit. Think of Steinbeck's Lenny, Lenny breaking Curly's hand in his own crumpling fist. Lenny was a big ill-witted boy who liked to pet soft things and usually killed them. That's what kind of retard to be. That's a retard.
He started at "hangnail"!

That's the pleasure of this book: following Iredell's skewed leaps of logic and attention, dancing along his unexpected connections, each leading sort of inexorably to the next, but at the same time taking such an odd angle that the point of origin is instantly lost, like Hansel in a bird-filled forest. The connections don't always work--an inherent risk when an author gives his childlike, semi-conscious imagination its head--but they do often enough to give the book a sense of abundance, of joy amid confusion, that's unlike anything else I've read recently. Read this entry on San Francisco, for example, and try not to enjoy the way it plays with cliches and outside impressions:
San Franciscans are most noted for their dreadlocks. In fact, when seen by astronauts hovering in the glow of the thermosphere, San Francisco proves to be one enormous dreadlock. All of Earth's patchouli--a substance cultivated primarily in regions known for their human rights violations--is exported to San Francicso. Thus, the air surrounding San Francisco, extending into the stratosphere, has had its trace elements replaced by patchouli and molecules of Dungeness crab. San Franciscans are fond of tacos and flat landscapes. Summers, one finds San Franciscans huddled around the hulking burning body of a wooden man, a wooden man in the shape of an inverse taco, placed in a distant desert, a desert flatter--even--than San Francisco.
It makes me wish he'd come up with an entry for Chicago.

I don't recommend that you live by the precepts of The Book of Freaks--unless you're the man with a shoe for a head found in its pages--but you could do far worse than tucking it in a pocket as a distraction for the year's sure-to-come moments of unalphabetized uncertainty.

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