As the title of Jennifer Spiegel’s breathtaking new collection suggests, these stories deal with outsiders and how they try to fit in, spiritually, politically, socially, sexually, in relationships, families, communities – in life. These stories take your breath away not only by the urgency of their concerns, to which we can all relate, but by the sheer panorama of the settings in which they occur, from Leningrad and Shanghai and Havana to New York, Arizona and all over South Africa. The tone in these stories ranges from the most deeply introspective to the wildly comical and to what can only be called “noir” (see “Advent”).
The main characters in Spiegel’s stories are almost all young, in their mid- to late-twenties, and, for the most part, unencumbered by family responsibilities. Indeed, Elizabeth, in “Glasnost,” is only a teenager, a summer language student in Leningrad just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most of the characters are idealistic and want to change the world, promote justice. Thus, Liz, the narrator of “Zigzag Bridge” works for a non-profit whose mission is to find girls in countries with rampant gender discrimination and send them to schools, where they might overcome this disadvantage; Ginger, the central character in “Free Dive” works for an NGO whose mission is to observe the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa in the late 1990’s, after Apartheid; Erin, in “Killing Castro,” after various idealistic civil rights projects, goes to work for something called the Committee on International Policy, whose ostensible mission is also “justice.” All of these characters become disillusioned, though no less committed to their ideals – just more than a little frustrated about realizing them.
In “Goodbye, Madagascar,” Isabel and Daniel Harmond, after what appears to be an impulsive decision to marry after a brief acquaintance in New York, become Catholic missionaries among the Xhosa tribesmen in the Transkei region along the coast of the Indian Ocean in South Africa. Frustrated by the natives’ unenthusiastic response to Christian teaching and competing with a charismatic witch doctor for the minds of the people, not to mention conflicts with other white foreigners, by the end of the story Isabel nevertheless reaffirms her faith in the essential goodness of humanity – and her husband.
The flip side of this spiritual groping is the fear of inauthenticity. Are they just going through the motions, not really a part of the social fabric? They are freaks, outsiders, remember. Thus, Margot in “Lemon” fears she is just being a poser, a hypocrite. “She liked the idea of being a free-spirited, tie-dye-garbed wild woman at home among the indigenous peoples…‘I want my MTV,’ she wrote in her journal with a heavy heart. She was obviously failing at real Africa.” Erin, in “Killing Castro,” has similar self-doubts. “And why did she always feel like she didn’t belong in this arena, like she was a pretender?” Angeline Wells speculates about imposters all throughout the last story, “Missing Northern.”
Ultimately, many of these characters are searching for the certainty of a God to validate their existence and their ideals. Is there a God? This question drives the conflict in “Goodbye Madagascar,” and again in “Zigzag Bridge” we hear Liz telling her boss that it’s her faith in the existence of God that motivates her to try to help the girls. If there were no God, she says, “I’d have a lot of sex, eat only chocolate, and spend all my time in the Jacuzzi.” The story “Nipples Beads Mealie Pap” features an argument between the existentialist Nick and a character named Ingrid, who insists on Absolutes. Nick and the narrator, Jillian, have what appears to be a passing but authentic, mutual, no-bullshitaffair, but by the end of the story she does not want to commit it to words, to writing. It would only kill the certainty. “With that, there is no truth.” Jillian has previously chided herself for her timidity, her allegiance to rules. She asks herself: “What if I let go? What would happen if I really let go?”
But Spiegel can also be funny when dealing with essentially the same questions. Think of a Woody Allen movie. “The Mickey Rourke Saga,” for instance, is the hilarious, zany story of a college girl’s Ahab-like obsession with the cult actor, Mickey Rourke. At one point, Rourke comes to Tucson, where the narrator goes to school, to shoot a film. “When Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson come to town to make their movie, it’s a godsend. And I believe in God.” By the end of the story, after her relationships collapse, the narrator confides, “Like Kim Basinger in the movie, I would crawl for love…I would humble myself and let any candle flame, any fire, graze my cheek, if love were truly at stake.” This, then, is her outsider’s absolute. Similarly, Jennifer, the narrator of the title story, “The Freak Chronicles,” is also looking for love, likewise has doubts about her identity, her authenticity, desperately wants a love relationship.
In the final story in the collection, “Missing Northern,” another humorous narrative that nevertheless has its heartbreak moments, the wandering free spirit narrator, Angeline, after years of traveling around the world, has become a stay-at-home mother, but still she has the same questions, the same doubts. Post-children she feels unattractive. “Among the glamorous I felt like a hausfrau…For the first time ever I understood why women wanted boob jobs.” While the writing is funny, we can sympathize with Angeline’s doubts. “I used to envision myself as something else,” she writes and soon after adds, “At what point did you admit to yourself, This is my life?”
Spiegel’s stories are very literate, peppered with references to Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Matthew Arnold, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, Orwell, Huxley, Vonnegut and others. The form of some of her stories is very inventive, original. Form is an integral part of the meaning of “Nipples Beads Mealie Pap” but no less a satisfying surprise when we get to the end. “Lemon” takes a double form of straight narrative and epistolary revelations in the letter the protagonist Margot is writing to her former lover Ben. The eponymous story is not really a diary but its section heading suggest something like it. All in all, these stories give the reader a real appreciation of the art of “storytelling.”
Spiegel has a new novel coming out this year as well. If Love Slave is anywhere near as entertaining and thought-provoking as The Freak Chronicles, it will likewise be worth reading.