Sunday, December 13, 2009

Weird by design

Title: Geek Love
Author: Katherine Dunn
Bookmark: some random receipt

I was really excited when I saw this title on the shelf, thinking that the author, like me, believes nerds to be romantic ideals. The first sentence on the back cover set me straight. This was not the colloquial use of "geek," but the traditional: the guy at carnivals who bites the heads off live chickens.

The Binewskis are a carny family. More than that, they are the carny family. Patriarch Al inherited the Binewski Fabulon from his own father, and married a Boston socialite who--that's right--ran away to join his circus. But times were tough for carnivals and their folk, and when all the freaks in his show drifted off, found new employment, or died, Al was in a fix. Then he hit upon his Plan, to which his loving Lil enthusiastically agreed. They would breed their own freak show.

Al used his love and knowledge of medicine to dose his wife through ovulation and gestation with everything from cocaine and amphetamines to arsenic and radioisotopes. As you might expect, the rate of return was less than stellar. One of the attractions of the family's Fabulon includes a display of the four children who didn't survive. Of those that remain, Arturo "the Aqua Boy" has flippers where his arms and legs should be, and performs daily in a large tank of water, swimming with unmatched skill. The Siamese twins, Electra and Iphigenia, share one pair of legs and the lower half of their trunk, but have four arms and play piano duets together, singiing beautifully and charming crowds. Our narrator, Olympia, is perpetually disappointed that she is "only" an albino hunchbacked dwarf, and not as "gifted" as her older siblings. Finally, there is Chick, who to all appearances is a completely normal child--so much so that they are ready to abandon him to a "norm" family before they discover his gifts.

Referring once more to the back of the book, Chick is described as "the family's most precious--and dangerous--asset." Having read the book, I beg to differ.

Arty is the quintessential power-mad psychopath. He flies into a rage if the twins bring in more tickets than his own show, it is implied that he might have killed one of his four siblings floating in the glass jars (a tailed lizard-looking girl who would have been a greater draw had she lived to show-business age), and he attempts to murder chick when he realizes the young lad's potential to somehow be more important to the family than he is. In time, Arty runs the show, and Al gets pushed into smaller and smaller roles. Arty is the one who makes decisions, hires and fires, and eventually a very literal cult following of over a hundred lunatics following the carnival from town to town, hanging on his every word, and going to great length to become "Artier than thou."

The story is told as a combination of flashbacks, flashbacks of flashbacks, news clippings and notebook jottings, and present-day (for Olympia) narrative. The carnival is long in her past, and she nonw lives in a small apartment building managed by her mother, who no longer recognizes her, and inhabited by a defrocked Benedictine and Oly's own daughter, who was raised as an orphan and has no idea who her real family is--though she does have a small, writhing tail.

There's a lot going on here, and some of the weaving is complex enough that I occasionally had to flip back through the chapters to find an earlier reference to a character who unexpectedly reappears later on just to remind myself of who they were, but it's worth it. Oly plays detective to find out more about the mysterius woman making a bizarre offer to her daughter. Arty comes to power through a long series of twisted machinations. Chick, who has such great power, is mysteriously reduced to an errand-boy, performing acts counter to his own high moral code simply to get love from his family. Al and Lil, once the king and queen of the carnival, each slowly withdraw further and further into their own shells, husks of what they once were, hollowed out by their son's selfish drive for power.

The threads are fascinating and terrifying and revolting and most of all brilliantly, beautifully written. Al will yell hysterically profane things like "Ah, the flabby-gashed mother of god!" and will be followed a few pages later with hauntingly written passages: "There are parts of Texas where a fly lives ten thousand years and a man can't die soon enough. Time gets strange there from too much sky, too many miles from crack to crease in the flat surface of the land." I don't even know what that means, but I loved reading it (I actually had a much better example in mind, but I can't find it anymore. It's lost in three hundred pages engaging prose). I still haven't decided whether anything was ever satisfactorily resolved. I mean, I know what happened, and the threads are all tied up, but I still want to know why a lot of it happened. Some of the answers are implied, or hinted at, but there's so much conflict between the characters and even in the minds of the individual characters--to say that they are complex would be short-selling them. They might as well be real people by the time you've finished reading their life stories--that you can reason your way to or from half a dozen different motives. Oly certainly doesn't witness everything herself, though she gets second-hand accounts from various sources and shares those with us, but there is a certain realism--even it is unsatisfying in a narrator--in us not knowing any more than she does. If someone goes quietly (or loudly) insane, she can only tell us what they do or say, and not why they might have done or said it. It's enthralling, sometimes heart-breaking, and ultimately a little revolting, because when you get right down to the roots of the story, it's not about the various members of a freak show; it's about a family, and how they treat each other, and while their appearances may be alien, there is something unnervingly familiar in how they touch (caress, throttle, stab) each other's lives.

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posted by reyn at 5:18 PM


Blogger Pink Frankenstein said...


I've been a Geek Love fan for years and just got a 1st edition copy since I lost my old paperback years ago. I've been thumbing through my copy a whole bunch and for some reason I can't find the "parts of Texas quote." So I googled it and found your post.

Can you tell me either what page or better what chapter it is in? I'm going nuts not being able to find it.

I saw Katherine Dunn at a great book store in Berkeley called Dark Carnival shortly after the paperback was released. I asked her if she would read that quote and she ended up reading it and more of that passage saying it was her favorite in the book!

Thanks for the help if you can.


1/06/2010 6:19 PM  
Blogger reyn said...


Sorry it took so long. I had to go back to the library and dig around until I could find that passage myself. Chapter 11: Blood, Stumps, and Other Changes. It's nearly at the end of the chapter. In the 1989 paperback I read, it's page 141, right at the very top.

Hope that helps!


1/16/2010 7:26 PM  

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