I was slightly confused when I started Lepers and Mannequins. The confusion was, I later realized, simple because I had recently come off of reading a spate of hilarious Bizarro novels that challenged me to stretch my imagination to the fullest, while bending me over in pain from laughter. My initial react to this novel wasn’t, at all, funny. I was concerned. I was concerned for the main character, for her lover, for her society and their natural enemies, and for the entire world they lived in.
And then I realized what was happening, and the brilliance that this novel is capable of.
Eric Beeny not only assailed my senses with some of the most off-the-wall characters and plot devices, but he also made me think long and hard about society and all of its nasty little ‘isms’. This is the Bizarro novel that almost made my damn self cry.
It’s been three years since the last harvest, and the lepers are preparing once again to wage war on the mannequins for spare parts – prosthetic limbs they need to rebuild themselves. Jaundice (a female mannequin) and Quall (a male leper) have fallen in love in the midst of this war, forcing them to confront and redefine the nature of loyalty and betrayal. An absurd and tragicomic allegory, Lepers and Mannequins explores how love, identity, class, religion and desire all divide people not only from each other, but from themselves. As the lepers struggle to maintain their humanity (striving at all costs to conquer both the mannequins and their disease), they could ultimately lose it. This is the mannequin metaphor, and warns of a startling fate for the lepers – if they can stay in one piece long enough to put themselves back together…
I usually don’t like stories that tell themselves from more than one perspective, but the way Beeny did it here is almost poetic in its subtlety. Not once does he let on that he knows he owns you, but he also actively encourages the reader to fully immerse themselves in the story through clever and strange positioning of key ingredients. The slop and squelch of the world that these two warring, yet intrinsically linked peoples live in is absolutely tangible. I loved the way that, no matter what was happening in the story, Beeny found a moment or two to explain what the terrain was like, and how the living conditions fared to the touch of these two ‘tribes’.
The entire novel could easily be set in anyone’s local forested area, making this one of the more accessible novels in the series. Yes, I understand the fact that Mannequins aren’t alive, and that Lepers are rarely in such a state of decomposition that they may feel a tinge of social unrest, thus planning an attack bent on harvesting the limbs of their neighbouring colonies… but that’s besides the point. The fact is, Beeny is very adept at slinging his words in a way that shows you he means business, but also sits early with those who don’t want to slog through weighty words that mean less than they appear to. The end result, thankfully, is a novel brimming with social commentary, copious amounts of face shredding insanity, an a generous amount of twisted Romeo and Juliet love that will melt the heart of the most hardened of genre readers.
There isn’t much more that I can say about this novel that will justify it, except for praising Beeny’s keen eye for dynamic characters. Jaundice is immediately identifiable as the quintessential female desire to be ‘perfect’ yet still different from those around her. Her lover, Quall, never hesitates to lay everything on the line for his love, calling to mind the selfless things that a man will do to profess his undying loyalty to the woman he desires. The rest of the Leper colony, and Jaundice’s Mannequin tribe act accordingly, eschewing their feelings for one another in favor of vilifying their painful, violent past. If it sounds a little Shakespearian, that’s because it is. This is, by and large, the best adaptation of a classic, though throughly original in its own right, that I have ever read.
Wild, violent, tear-jerking attraction is almost immediate in Lepers and Mannequins. Beeny has created something special here, and I’m pleasantly satisfied with the result.
You can grab a copy of this book in paperback and for your Kindle. Also make sure you check out Eric Beeny’s blog, Dead End on Progressive Avenue, and Eraserhead Press for more incredible Bizarro Fiction. If you’re looking for even more Bizarro information, visit Bizarro Central for all of your weird needs.