Fall reading officially begins … now

A Big New Book is being released tomorrow: Elena Ferrante’s “The Lying Life of Adults, the follow-up to her celebrated four-book Neapolitan Novels (“My Brilliant Friend,” etc.) that’s been awaited with clammy palms and mild hyperventilation around the world. They call it Ferrante Fever, the passion with which readers embrace her Naples-set, fiercely feminist fiction. In fact, so beloved and famous are her novels, of which I’ve only read two (heresy!), I will go into no more detail about their glittering renown. 

As reclusive and elusive as Sasquatch, Ferrante writes under a pseudonym and an impenetrable cloud of anonymity, so thick even her tireless English translator has never met her (him? they?) in person. The tenacity with which she preserves a faceless non-identity, shrouded in maddening mystery, makes Ferrante a sort of Banksy of literature. She’s been touted for the Nobel Prize, and we wonder how that would work — a fashionable no-show à la Bob Dylan? Does it matter?

41fHc-hEosL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_

The publication of “The Lying Life of Adults” (which charts the thorny coming of age of a teenage girl) has been called the “literary event of the year” by those New York magazine types, and lots of slobber has soaked its impending release. 

I haven’t read the novel yet — I have a copy on hold, he panted — so I can’t say much more about it without paraphrasing the publicity notes and that will put all of us to sleep. When I finally crack it, I’ll share. 

Meanwhile, about the excellent book I just finished today … 

I have great faith in the tastes of London-based blogger Jessica, a native Ohioan who writes the funny and fascinating — and on the rare, lucky occasion, riotously scatological — Diverting Journeys. So when she recently reviewed the freak show history “The Wonders: The Extraordinary Performers Who Transformed the Victorian Age, I promptly grabbed a copy. A fellow enthusiast of the creepy and freaky — from baroque cemeteries to carnival sideshows and babies-in-jars museums — Jessica writes, “I genuinely loved this book. It was so fun to read, and was the perfect combination of cultural and medical history.” 

51Nh9MINwEL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Agreed. Author John Woolf weds sharp scholarship and anecdotal color about some of the most popular human oddities of the 17th to 20th centuries with accessible and mesmerizing verve. Some of the abnormalities are digestible — dude, you’re like the size of a Cabbage Patch Kid! — while others rattle: the rampant racial exploitation marring the sideshow circuit truly sickens. 

A “Wonders” sampling: the woman with a blimp-sized derriere and an XL labia; the original Siamese Twins (slaveholders, they), who both married and had like fifty children; an array of dwarfs who thrived as playthings in Europe’s royal courts; and two of my all-time favorites, Julia Pastrana, billed as the Ugliest Woman in the World, and Joseph Merrick, the eternally doomed Elephant Man. (Actually, Pastrana was also doomed. You cannot believe how she winds up.)

These are stories of amazement — you keep wondering how? and why? — and, too often, searing heartbreak. This book somehow manages not to shatter you, not by shirking facts, but by maintaining a tempered, dignified humanity that cleaves to historical reality. Shudder if you must. 

julia-pastrana-2
Julia Pastrana

My freakish fixation

When am I not thinking about the Elephant Man? 

I’m not just talking about the shattering 1980 film by David Lynch (still one of my favorite movies — see my appreciation here). I also mean the actual, real-life Elephant Man, née Joseph Merrick, the hideously deformed young Brit who, with considerable luck and one doctor’s wayward compassion, went from the squalid, dehumanizing freak show circuit to become the toast of Victorian London before he died at age 28 in 1890.

Merrick has been on my mind since I was yay high. Call it odd, perverse or, well, freakish, but the creepy and offbeat have clutched me in their thrall since my youthful exposure to Universal Horror flicks, campfire myths like Bigfoot and the Moth Man, and the most enduring gift I received on my eighth birthday, the thick book “Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves, and Triumphs of Human Oddities” by Frederick Drimmer.  

Josephmerrick1889

In the book, among the likes of Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy; Grace McDaniels the Mule-Faced Woman; the original Siamese twins; and Julia Pastrana, aka the Ugliest Woman in the World, was Merrick, perhaps the saddest story of them all. (Although Pastrana’s story is heartrending, bizarrely grotesque, and worth a look here.)

A speedy summary: In an unorthodox gesture of charity, Dr. Frederick Treves took in the incurable Merrick, who suffered from severe neurofibromatosis, at the Royal London Hospital, furnishing the sick, lost and abused sideshow veteran a dazzling new life of comfort, friends, celebrity visitors, room and board and more. Though his appearance still terrified the faint of heart, Merrick was embraced by mainstream society until his premature death. IMG_0581.JPG

(Merrick’s skeleton resides at the old Royal London Hospital, and a few years ago I visited hoping to see the bones. I was rebuffed, but I had the pleasure of the hospital’s special museum dedicated to Merrick’s life.) 

I know a lot about “The Terrible Elephant Man,” as he was billed on the road, not only from “Very Special People” and Lynch’s ravishing biopic, but from a slim paperback I bought in seventh grade, “The True History of the Elephant Man,” about which I wrote and presented a book report to my befuddled English class. 

What gets me about Merrick is his life story, one so rippled with tragedy and depravity, it curdles the soul as it breaks the heart. Living in a sooty black-and-white London of clanking, steaming machinery that ushered in the Industrial Revolution, Merrick’s old-timey milieu also enthralls (see the Lynch movie for a rattling immersion in time and place), and seems of a piece with his destitute, Dickensian plight. 

And the disease: The exotically gruesome, inconceivably savage affliction renders man into monster, whose corrupted flesh cannot conceal the gentle soul locked inside the twisted, tumored carapace.  

My fascination has become rather fanboy. (Elephant Man cosplay — I will have to pass.) Besides books about Merrick — including “Making ‘The Elephant Man’” by one of the film’s producers, which I just bought — I own the American, Turkish and Japanese posters of Lynch’s movie, as well as a coffee mug embossed with a period photo of Merrick looking dapper in a three-piece suit. 

the-elephant-man-japanese-movie-poster

Around the time I got the making-of book, I ordered what I’ve wanted for a long time, a t-shirt of the “Elephant Man” movie. This one is a silkscreen of the film’s Japanese poster art, fusing my passion for all things Japanese with my strange Merrick mania. 

A tad zealous, perhaps. But consider that Michael Jackson famously tried to buy Merrick’s bones. He was flatly refused. I once thought that Jackson was overreaching, being the creepy eccentric he was.

Nowadays, not so much.

Siamese twins: Freaks? Marvels? No. Human.

“There is the 19th-century obsession with abnormality — that insatiable desire of humans looking at other humans as monsters.” — “Inseparable” by Yunte Huang

Chang and Eng Bunker.jpg
Chang and Eng Bunker, the “original” Siamese twins

Siamese twins don’t keep me up at night, don’t chill my bones, not like Julia Pastrana, enshrined in her time as the Ugliest Woman in the World, or the appetite-suppressing Grace McDaniel, the Mule-Faced Woman, that poor, poor dear.

Freaks they may be, but Siamese, or conjoined, twins aren’t freaky enough for me. They are marvelous and reality-bending, sometimes shocking but usually just remarkably human and, despite wincing deformities, almost normal. They are not, as so many freak show stars are reduced to, depraved monsters.

Take Chang and Eng, the most famous of all conjoined twins. Whisked from their native Siam (present-day Thailand) as teenagers by Western opportunists who swore to bring them back to their aggrieved mother in five years time, the twins embarked on a journey that would take them to America and England as wildly celebrated sideshow attractions. They would never return home. 

CraniopagusTwins-1024x253.jpg

It was the early 1800s and the boys, who became forever known as the “original Siamese twins,” wowed spectators used to ogling human marvels, from the limbless to the scale-covered and, later, the extreme likes of the Elephant Man and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.

A London newspaper wrote, “Without being the least disgusting or unpleasant, like almost all monstrosities, these youths are certainly one of the most extraordinary freaks of nature that has ever been witnessed.”

That’s the start of the true story told in the sensitive new biography “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History” by writerly crack reporter Yunte Huang. It’s a strange tale, it’s a sad tale, one of courage, dignity, triumph and increasing oddness, yet one of naked humanity and crackling history, including illuminating nods to the Civil War, Herman Melville, Lincoln (who apparently liked cock fighting) and Mark Twain, who, transfixed, wrote a story based on the twins.

Conjoined twins have existed since at least recorded history, in royal courts (alongside impish dwarves and the cruelly deformed), Indian villages to brimming metropolises. “The occurrence is estimated to range from 1 in 49,000 births to 1 in 189,000 births, with a somewhat higher incidence in Southeast Asia and Africa. Approximately half are stillborn, and an additional one-third die within 24 hours,” notes a scientific journal.  a6667e8dffd824d02b052c8f2a63dba2

Those are abysmal survival odds. Indeed, the whole conjoined-twin phenomenon seems like a hateful prank played by a sadistic God. But somehow Chang and Eng made the best of it, despite inevitable exploitation on the sideshow circuit, invasive, humiliating medical examinations by gawking, prodding doctors, and of course racial prejudices of the era.

They were also comparatively lucky. Chang and Eng were joined by a mere cord of ligament at their sternum, as opposed to twins conjoined at their skulls or buttocks, sharing multiple organs, rendering them certifiably handicapped, facing heartbreaking physical hardships. (Bittersweet aside: If they were alive today, modern medicine could easily and safely separate Chang and Eng.)

They were bound for life by “the connecting band — the key to the twins’ mystery,” writes Huang. The band looks like a slab of rubber stretched to the brink, rather like an arm on Stretch Armstrong, bridging their stomachs. The twins did share a fused liver, an oversized organ on permanent display in a pan of liquid at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. (I’ve seen it, twice. It is disgustingly glorious.)

chang_engjpg__600x0_q85_upscale.jpg__600x0_q85_upscale.jpg
Chang and Eng’s death cast at the Mutter Museum, Philadelphia

A single bellybutton was nestled in the center of the flesh tube, which actually grew with daily wear and tear. Once, “as Eng tried to stand up, he was pulled down by the fleshy string that had tied him to his brother,” says Huang. “Over the years, constant tugging had stretched the cord from its original four inches in length to five and a half, allowing a little more flexibility.” (Some Vaseline and a good masseuse might have done wonders.)

Here the story veers to, at minimum, vigorous eyebrow raising. After lucrative years on the exhibition circuit as “freaks of nature,” Chang and Eng moved to rural North Carolina where they bought land, owned 32 black slaves (!!) and married two white sisters and, spectacularly, sired 21 children. (They had separate genitalia.) In the book’s chapter “Foursome,” Huang explains how the twins had sex: gingerly. Tangled limbs, “Pardon me’s,” whispered apologies, averted eyes — one envisions a hot, or not so hot, mess.

During the Civil War, the Bunkers pledged allegiance to the Confederacy, which didn’t work out so well for the brothers financially. Soon they were on the freak circuit again to cover costs. They died of natural causes at age 62 in 1874.

image-1142642-galleryV9-ovom-1142642.jpg
The remarkable cast of a 19th-century freak show.

“Freaks,” “marvels,” “wonders” — sideshow performers, trading in dubious self-exploitation, were labeled florid epithets to amplify their bizarre and exotic natures. It must have been a beating on their psyche and self-worth, robbing them of a portion of their soul, exposing themselves to dehumanizing gawking. It’s an ugly, despicable racket.

Chang and Eng might have, by virtue of their mostly normal appearances, been spared the worst of it, avoiding fainting audience members, brutish hecklers and degrading qualifiers, like “terrible” and “horrifying,” in their promotional material.

Yet nothing was ordinary for them. They were extraordinary, suffering under constant “otherness,” a state critic Leslie Fiedler so sharply dubbed “the tyranny of the normal.”

Still, they were in their own way normal. Wives, children, struggles, longevity, relative happiness. They were like the rest of us strivers and survivors — human, all too human.