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  • Dismissing Domesticity
  • Lavinia Ludlow (bio)
The Freak Chronicles. Jennifer Spiegel Dzanc Books. 261pages; paper, $15.95, eBook, $7.99.

A book titled The Freak Chronicles (2012) might be misjudged as a collection about velour vest-wearing hipsters deviating from the norm through outlandish fetishes, neuroses, and ethos. On the contrary, Jennifer Spiegel’s sentiments of “freak” differ immensely from the overused and often misunderstood terminology, as depicted in her recent release comprised of eleven eccentric short stories. Collectively, Spiegel drew inspiration from multiple countries and cultures, highlighting protagonists who deviate from conventional life in developed nations by thrusting themselves into developing worlds with harsh physical and political climates. At times, the characters in these eleven stories occupy not only suffer from the physical and psychological duress of inhabiting a foreign nation, but also the alienation of being a stranger in a strange land.

In “Goodbye, Madagascar,” an Irish pastor exhibits frustration from the neediness of the Xhosa people he serves, and is often irritated that his audience consists mostly of women and children who don’t understand English. This piece sheds light on the fact that everyone, even those we look up to for guidance and hope, loses faith and questions “God’s” ability to care. Spiegel underlines the obvious fact that everyone, even the most holy, belongs to a flawed species who share universal feelings of loneliness and isolation. We drink too much, question the Divine or the lack thereof, and will blame internal strife on every external force possible without once thinking that our biggest problems come from within. Hardly a story of drab religiousness, “Goodbye, Madagascar” is a glimpse into the lives of two missionaries, their less-than-innocent backgrounds; their search for inner absolution. Despite a transgression, they trudge forth to see out meaning in their work, self-sacrifice, and their marriage.

In “Zigzag Bridge,” an American named Liz travels to China to observe and write up her findings on a friend’s nonprofit school for girls. Upon arrival, she undergoes the culture shock of being a privileged visitor in a country where education is nonexistent in rural areas, baby girls are abandoned because of the “one child law,” and women kill themselves if they are unable to produce a son. Charitable foreigners flock to the country to provide aid, which Liz views as merely “a hiatus from their civilized existences. They have the luxury of eating bugs and sleeping in mud, but they’re totally vaccinated…. Poverty porn, I’ve heard it called.” Liz’s revelations plunge her into deep discussions with her travel partner, asking tough questions such as, “Doesn’t our work just reaffirm the idea that we’re rich Americans here to save the day because the poor Chinese don’t even diaper their babies? Aren’t we trying to be inclusive, but ultimately waving our flag around?” A disheartening yet thought-provoking tale, Spiegel hits the mark with “Zigzag Bridge” by pointing out the fruitlessness of foreign charity in a country suffering from such overwhelming social issues like poverty and illiteracy.

Of all the stories in this collection, “Glasnost” is one of the strongest and most compelling. A woman narrates through the major milestones in her life from student, to playwright, to wife, and the small moments in between like her short stint in Russia where she encountered strangers crying on the street to lovers kissing on the train. Her nonlinear narratives are intercepted with background details packed with blunt and darkly comical truths: “By the end of the year, Soviet Communism will fall, and Elizabeth will leave for college, never to return to her parents’ world again except for short-lived visits that will leave her inexplicably gloomy and noisily independent, examining things like student loan payment plans and doing things like crying aloud during blockbuster movies that aren’t particularly sad.”

The title story features a well-articulated narrator named Jennifer who tells her story in a systematic matter by touching on the major milestones of her life at the ages of 19, 24, 28, and so forth. She begins her tale as a bio student looking pitifully down at her dissection and then flashes...


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pp. 16-18
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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