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The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘freak’ as one that is markedly unusual or abnormal, a person or animal having a physical oddity. That being said, I love me some ‘Freak Lit’! I gobble up stories about people on the fringes of society, people who have been cast out as inferior. These books humanize freaks; they force you to identify with them and examine your own life and identity. I love the intricacies of their stories; the intimate details of their inner lives, and the beauty that is found in the grotesque (Hmm. I think I just figured out why I like reality television so much. Don’t hold that against me).
Lori Lansen’s The Girls is a great example. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking story of the oldest living craniopagus twins (Rose and Ruby are conjoined at the head). Told from the perspective of both twins through alternating chapters, this novel is about the bonds of sisterhood, our dependence on each other, and the struggle to find one’s own identity and voice.
Told from the perspective of Olympia Binewski, an aging, bald, albino, hump-backed dwarf, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love is wacky and fantastic, sad and raw, often hilarious, and above all, unforgettable. This book will disturb and engross you. Art and Lily Binewski, Olympia’s parents, decide to maximize the success of their travelling circus by engineering an entire family of freaks through the use of experimental drugs and exposure to radiation. Shock value aside, this novel has a lot to say about the nature of love and jealousy, and about our need for acceptance.
I recently read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (author of The Virgin Suicides), and think it also fits nicely within this genre (I know I’m behind the curve here. I mean, the cover even had TWO little decals on it: one for Oprah’s wildly popular book club, and one for the Pulitzer). The narrator is Cal/liope Stephanides, a hermaphrodite whose condition was overlooked as a child, and who was subsequently raised as a girl. Cal eventually decides to run away from ‘corrective’ surgery and live as a man, which gives Eugenides a chance to explore the struggles we face in coming to terms with our choices. The real beauty here, though, is the warmth and care Eugenides employs to tell Cal’s family saga. His Greek grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty, flee a devastated Turkey and immigrate to a richly detailed 1920’s Detroit, Michigan, where they settle into married life and set off a familial cycle of secrecy and shame.
If you’re looking for a book with dazzling prose, sprawling family histories, or just to lose yourself in the minds and lives of ‘freaks’, give one of these a try, and let me know if you have any ‘Freak Lit’ recommendations for me!