"An Unsteady Place" appears in the second half of the book and is about a woman vacationing with her husband and children at a beachside rental. The house they stay in is nautical-themed down to the handles of utensils. The idea of a fail-proof vacation with a perfect family is supposed to seem unsettling in this context, especially after the speaker says in what I imagine to be a pretty deadpan voice, "There is no way to make a mistake here." This is pretty much setting up everybody in the story for failure, and sure enough, a few pages later our protagonist can't look her children in the eyes because she's convinced they are turning into sea creatures that will devour her alive. She counts the starfish decals on the walls incessantly, and when she gets the same number everytime, the normalcy of that seems to drive her further into madness. "An Unsteady Place" is an example of a time where xTx creates a character who goes completely crazy for what seems to outsiders as irrational reasons, if they even notice the growing psychosis in the first place. Another example is in "The Mill Pond," which deals with a totally different kind of outcast, a chubby, pre-pubescent girl cursed with a bitterly ironic name - Tinkerbell. She toes the edge of what it means to feel sexual, and her underdeveloped sexuality, especially in relation to the polluted motives of the adult world around her, feels disturbing, if not ominous. Without making any kind of negative connotation about sex in general, this story, like "I Love My Dad. He Loves Me.", draws parallels not between sex and being sexy, but sex and estrangement from other humans. Something is really weird and sad about Tinkerbell laying on her back in the sun, pulling her shirt up to her "boobies," and rubbing her belly, alone with her thoughts. I thought for a second that I felt sorry for Tinkerbell and her contemporaries but this reaction was probably just a defensive one. You know how sometimes you pity or hate a quality in someone else because you actually just see it in yourself? I felt this way about Tinkerbell, which I think is a pretty cool/ intense reaction for a writer to get out of a reader. We surprise ourselves by never feeling better off or more sane than these characters, even when they are doing things like fantasizing about a boy named Fritos stabbing himself 33 times in the belly. Other than being compelling and often charmingly relevant, the characters xTx creates in these stories are remarkable for a reason I didn't fully understand until "I Am Not a Monster," the last story in the book. This story's title and most of its first page sound like a character statement of a suspiciously unreliable narrator. But then the narrator says this:
"I am the most timid of monsters. They have removed me from my position within their ranks citing words like fail, coward, reject, weakling, useless, stupid, worthless, dumbass. I tried to hang within their monster ranks, I did. I do. I try every day. It's a reenlisting of a reenlisting of a reenlisting. Every day I think, I am there and every day they kick me out. They make me go back to my life. They know what I know and that is, I have too much to hold on to so I cannot truly be a monster."
I think it's amazing how this character, despite functioning as a complete social outcast, is even a freak perceived by the rest of the freaks. The "freak elite" perhaps. Because she (I assume she is a "she," there is something astoundingly feminine about the majority of narrators in this book), has "too much to hold on to," she cannot fully embrace and be open with her nonconformity. She is certainly a monster, but in a way less tangible way than being green and slimy and living under your bed. That would make things too easy for her. Instead she must privately deviate from the average human emotions, desires, and fantasies. You can't pick her out of a crowd because she looks exactly like everyone else. Only she understands how fucked up she truly is, and this understanding brands her perpetually alone. "I Am Not a Monster" was a perfect end to Normally Special for me because I felt this really exciting catharsis where I was reminded of so many other characters in the book and how they are all secret freaks in the same strange, lonely, undisclosed way. I also started thinking about other secret freaks I know. I thought of Dexter and Dennis Cooper's George Miles. Monsters with pretty brown hair and healthy relationships with their dads. Chubby comic-book readers or young mothers at beachside vacation rentals. Anybody whose weirdness goes completely unsuspected by everyone else, and maybe even by themselves. xTx has said in interviews that she writes under a pseudonym to protect the people in her real life from seeing this ugly, dark, societally "wrong" side of her. It's like under the guise of this alternate persona, her inner freak is unleashed, free to be as wild and disgusting and honest as her characters wish they could be.
Anyways, if that's not incentive enough to read this book, then maybe I should mention its size. It's small enough to fit in my purse, which is so small that I can't carry around a normal wallet anymore. It's cute. It's a cute, unassuming, strange little read.