While I had high hopes going into Susan Vaught’s Freaks Like Us, I’m happy to say that it exceeded my expectations. Granted, my first impression wasn’t quite so enthusastic, as the first few chapters did little to sustain the interest that the book’s intriguing cover blurb had inspired. Yet I soon learned that this was a symptom of a learning curve rather than of poor writing. Narrator Jason initially comes across as quite young, and the stream-of-consciousness narrative that signifies his thought process is off-putting at first. However, once you get into the rhythm of the narrative, Freaks Like Us takes hold and refuses to let go.
Freaks Like Us is an alternately humorous and harrowing novel narrated by a young man suffering from schizophrenia. Though I’ve mentioned my interest in novels with narrators afflicted with mental illness before, I can’t help but feel that many such novels purport to explore the parameters of illness while covertly sanitizing it. Yet in Freaks Like Us, Jason shows us just why the phrase “to suffer from” came about. His disease isn’t downplayed, nor is it gratuitously exaggerated. I can’t speak from experience, but as a lay observer, I came away with an impression of honesty regarding Vaught’s treatment of Jason’s battles with his mental health. That’s not to say that Jason is victimized by his situation; quite the opposite, he is one of the strongest characters I’ve come across lately precisely because he doesn’t inflate his own confidence or self-worth. Jason isn’t aware of the extreme fortitude that he exhibits in the dignity with which he deals with his disease, and he’s all the more sympathetic for it.
As I mentioned before, Jason’s internal monologue (or dialogue, as it were, as Jason is constantly struggling to ignore the voices in his head) is somewhat convoluted at first. But within a few chapters, I realized a horrible truth. While Jason’s internal narrative sounds like a disconnected, confused youth, his speaking voice does not. It takes a while to realize this, as Jason does not converse much in the book’s early chapters, yet as the investigation gets underway and Jason finds himself a suspect in his best friend’s disappearance, he must express himself despite the difficulty that his illness and medications pose. In his attempts to convey his thoughts and feelings to friends, family, and the law enforcement working the case, one fact becomes glaringly obvious: Jason is not a child. His voice is that of an intelligent young man, and though he cannot always express himself in the manner he wishes to, he is no fool.
Normally, with a story like this, I would have wanted more insight into the secondary characters, particularly Sunshine, as her own illness is hinted at but never explicitly discussed. Yet Jason’s voice rings so true, despite his difficulties, that ultimately we don’t need more elaboration into what Sunshine is like to show us why we should care for her. All we need to know is that Jason cares, and that fact is abundantly clear, even if his expression of those feelings isn’t always obvious or overt. I adore unreliable narrators, and it’s clear from the get-go that Jason is just that. Still, while this can sometimes work against a novel’s air of mystery, since we are alert to expect the unexpected, I was unable to predict what would happen next and was in fact scared we would never learn Sunshine’s fate. Not only was this device effective in the big picture, but it also worked to poignant effect in several key scenes.
Freaks Like Us explores the very real agony of being different. Everyone but Sunshine calls Jason “Freak,” and while he loves that about her, he nonetheless tells the investigating officer to call him “Freak” as well. Jason’s ambivalence toward his own identity raises important questions, such as whether it is in fact kinder to acknowledge or to deny something perceived as a flaw. Is Jason’s request for others to call him Freak, despite his hatred of the name, an admonition or an absolution?
Overall, Freaks Like Us gave me something that I have been craving all year: a read that took be unexpectedly and whole-heartedly by surprise.