Book Review: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Remember when we were told fairy tales or fables that had some moral lesson embedded in the story line of prince-princess-magic-fairy-talkingAnimals-AlwaysSomethingInThrees-evil-witches-and-castles? The point of these stories was mostly to help young minds wrap around weightier life lessons of morality and issues of sound character?

In some ways this is the effect that Katherine Dunn's novel Geek Love had on me. Sometimes we have to go far askew into the land of fantasy where boundaries don't exist; because in the realm of fiction we never ask how that could be probable in order to understand a small token of our own realities. 

"People talk easily to me. They think a bald albino hunchback dwarf can't hide anything. My worst is all out in the open. It makes it necessary for people to tell you about themselves...Just being visible is my biggest confession, so they try to set me at ease by revealing our equality, by dragging out their own less apparent deformities" (156). 
It's these kinds of narrative moments revealed by the characters, in this case Oly the narrator of Geek Love, that shocked me. How could a circus freak that doesn't even really exist have gotten that kind of insight?! How did she so matter-of-factly put into words what I have experienced in public time and time again? How did her fiction mirror my reality with such precise accuracy that were it not for the - at times - confusingly organized plot line, I almost believed wholly hook, line, and sinker? 

Let me now explain why I said ALMOST believed. 

The main characters of this novel are the Binewski family members. Their mother (Lil) and father (Al) intentionally bred offspring through a series of risque experimentation. Their goal? To "breed his own freak show...."What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?"" (7). So while Lil was pregnant with each of the children husband and wife would play 'mad scientist' with various drugs, insecticides, and even radioisotopes. The result: Arturo the aqua boy, siamese twin sisters Electra and Iphigenia, Oly (who describes herself above) is the dwarf, and then the mysteriously outward-appearing "normal" Chick. 
And when the Binewski's goal was meant to "breed his own freak show" .. this is not the same way most of us now use the term "freak show." I mean they were a traveling circus freak show in caravans, tents, fire breathers, popcorn, and the whole nine-yards. 

I know that there is a lot of history that is accurate in between the lines of Dunn's novel. That these traveling 'freak shows' existed at one point is one such fact; that people with 'disabilities' or more accurately deformities (or just plain looked 'off') were put on stages to be gawked at for entertainment, actually did happen. And even today it still happens! 
But this is a story that, if you are patient enough, and have a mind that's flexible enough, (particularly if you are disabled) that speaks beyond the incredibly bizarre and twisted show life of circus freaks. As Oly says at one point "Those poor hop-toads behind me are silent. I've conquered them. They thought to use and shame me but I win out by nature, because a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born" (20). 

Where the story's organization confuddled me was that it's a story embedded in a story. Maybe I wasn't reading carefully enough, though the 20-some-odd post-it-notes sticking outside of the book would beg to differ, but I didn't realize that this was the case until 3/4's of the way through. At this point readers come into the complexities of family relations and we are immersed in the moral conflict between Oly and her daughter Miranda. Miranda who doesn't realize she is Oly's daughter. Miranda who was not brought up as a child to make a living from her existence. Miranda who is shocked when she hears Oly tell her ""I've wished I had two heads. Or that I was invisible. I've wished for a fish's tail instead of legs. I've wished to be more special"" (34). Miranda was born with a tail and - this is where the book expands in both breadth and depth: the multitude of attitudes and perspectives towards their own physical abnormalities within a family. 
Just as this is where the story begins to get complex, it is also where I - as a reader who is disabled - might imagine that those who are not disabled can begin to empathize with the characters --

On one end of the spectrum we learn about perceived physical differences and how all of its 'glorified' strangeness impacts a person: "Arty said, "We have this advantage, that the norms expect us to be wise. ...And the more deformed we are, the higher our supposed sanctity"" (114). 

As a reader I interpreted this with the 'pedestal effect' that some people with disabilities place themselves upon. 

On the other end of the spectrum readers are also brought into the other more complex experience of disability: "None of us had ever slept in a hotel or eaten in a restaurant or flown in a plane... And we suspected, each of us, blackly and viciously, that Papa preferred his norm kid to us. With Chick he was free to go anywhere. We could live only in the show" (87). This is the experience of 'passing' that because Chick presents with 'normative' physicalities he is able to maneuver both sides of the line, his gifts unseen by any outside of the Binewski clan. 

Was this book a bit far fetched? Well of course! I knew I was getting into some crazed fantasy by page 7, but this is exactly what fiction is meant to do. It presents the extreme versions and it is up to the author to inform us something about ourselves and the lives we lead. Did Katherine Dunn do this for me? In some ways she did. I am certainly not *there* yet, or am not as comfortable with myself in comparison to the members of the Binewski family as revealed by a lot of the statements her characters make. But there is a sort of comfort I find in such books because I can go there in my brain, tugged along by the turning of each page and the stop of each dusty town the Binewski caravan pulls into... without feeling too overwhelmed or anxious to know what is the answer to this question of disability, family, and where is the line?! Because it is a book. A fiction book that will end at some point, and that is where my brain will end with it. And just maybe, just maybe.. my thoughts become a little more fluid and daring in its ability to embrace the strange.
I mean, after all those stories and fairy tales of childhood I certainly never stopped believing that three is a magically hopeful number. 

Posted in , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. RSS feed for this post.

Leave a Reply

Copyright © 2011 Perfectly Imperfecta. Powered by Blogger.