When I sat down to read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. A few times, in bookstores, I had scanned the back of the book and read something about a carnival family. However, for the longest time, I was convinced the book was about “geeks;” aka, social outcasts, smarties, nerdy people like me. It seemed like a cute title, but the covers were always so mysteriously plain, and so I put it off until I found it in the clearance section of Half-Price about a month ago.
Well, perhaps if I had seen this cover, I would have reconsidered my misconceptions. I then would have started reading as soon as humanly possible, because this book blew me away. I was touched, horrified, disgusted, amazed and addicted. Seriously, each chapter keeps you spellbound from one line to the next, making you physically unable to set the book done for several hours at a time.
Geek Love tells the story of the Binewski family and their traveling Fabulon, part-carnival and part-freak show–an act the whole family joins in on. You see, after the carnival runs into some financial woes, the family patriarch Aloysius (Al) and his wife Crystal Lil (a performer in her own right, known for biting off the heads of chickens) decide to genetically engineer the next generation of freaks to wow the Fabulon crowds. By medicting herself beyond all bounds of moral decency, Lil gives birth to Arty–the “aqua boy” with flippers, instead of arms and legs–the Siamese twins Iphy and Ellie, the hunchbacked dwarf Olympia (and the novel’s narrator) and telekinectic Fortunato.
The fact that the book is about literal “freaks” is jarring enough, but what is truly shocking is their lives. There has been much discussion about the fact that Dunn didn’t rely on the conventional, indie narrative technique when it comes to freaks: “They may be different on the outside, but on the inside they’re just like you and me.” In this narrative, it’s the “norms” who find themselves as the bad guys, and it’s ridiculously predictable. I’m happy Dunn turned her back on it, because in Geek Love, the freaks are front and center, and it’s their lives that are disturbing and terrifying. As someone over at the A.V. Club comments:
Being a freak fucks you up, in all ways. There are no easy ways to make the world love you, if you’re a freak. You may never find or receive love, and an unloved being is capable of terrible things, both because he or she grows to despise the world for its indifference and yet never quite stops being desperate for its approval.
As this person goes on to note, this message is a lot colder than your average, PC audience might desire, but it’s the truth.
It’s hard to glean many “life lessons” from a narrative such as this, and I ran into this problem a few times during my reading. The book’s counter-narrative involves an older Olympia trying to protect her daughter from the machinations of a strange woman named Ms. Lick. Olympia’s daughter, Miranda, is unaware of her familial heritage (Oly was forced to give her up as a baby) and appears perfectly normal, except for her tail. When she is propositioned by the formidable, sexless Ms. Lick–a TV-dinner millionaire–to have her tail surgically removed, Oly is determined to do anything to keep Ms. Lick away from her daughter. These sections can be quite confusing; Ms. Lick is revealed to be a slightly deranged demagogue, who feels herself destined to “save” women from their sexuality so they can achieve “success.” Using bribes and large sums of money, “her girls” are surgically altered (breasts removed, acid poured on their faces) so they can achieve what they never could have as normal women–or, sexual objects for men. It’s a strange sequence, and I kept trying to figure out what Dunn was trying to say. The freak/normal didactic is broken down since Ms. Lick normally tries to turn her girls into freaks, but is only trying to make Miranda normal. And Oly, who is usually proud of her abnormal status, despises Ms. Lick for playing God. However, didn’t Oly’s father act the same way in creating the Binewski Fabulon?
The theme of altering one’s appearance in order to achieve intellectual or spiritual bliss is also reflected in the story of Arty, Oly’s aqua boy brother who grows dangerously narcissistic and powerful. Arty makes no disguise of his hatred for “norms” and turns to preaching during his wildly popular stage shows. This leads the to creation of Auturism, a cult in which Arty’s rabid followers choose to amputate their limbs in order to shed human weakness and achieve spiritual enlightment. The story of Arty forespells the eventual destruction of the Binewski dream (it’s never a question if, but when and how things all come to a head), the tragedy that dogs Iphy, Ellie and Fortunato, and incestuous love story between Arty and Oly.
In the end, one feels that the “bad guys” all receive their eventual comeuppance. But by that time, one is so shell-shocked, it’s hard to know what to think. The story leaves one gasping for more, yet is so disturbing, one almost feels the need to turn away at times. However, Dunn didn’t write Geek Love merely for the shock factor. The writing is absolutely beautiful, appropriately wry, perfectly lyrical; you feel as if you’ve never really seen something unless she’s set her pen to it. This may be a complete work of fiction, but it feels as if Dunn is transcribing a reality we all know exists–and is shockingly real–yet we choose to avert our eyes when it passes us by. Dunn’s prose is never deliberately provacative; the story itself does all the work. The world around us is what’s disturbing, Dunn seems to be saying. Humanity, with all of its strange desires, is twisted and strange. And yet, there is beauty and even freaks have to find a way through this world.