What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?
Crystal Lil, “Geek Love”, Katherine Dunn
In Dunn’s audacious, grotesque and surprisingly moving 1989 novel, Lillian and Aloysius Binewski revive their flagging carnival by deliberately creating a family of freaks. They experiment with various combinations of drugs, insecticides, and radioisotopes to induce deformities, endure the heartbreak of children born unviable or (shock, horror) normal, all to build a family of confident, talented and astounding children.
Oly, the narrator, is a bald, 3-foot-tall albino hunchback. Iphy and Elly are Siamese twins. Their firstborn Arturo has flippers rather than limbs, an awesome ego and a malevolent charisma. Their youngest, Chick, appears to be “a norm”, but is anything but; his peculiar gift is an integral part of what propels the family into their outlandish fame and risks their demise.
So, while I thought that this series of little essays on deformity in literature was over, I knew as soon as I started Geek Love that I would need to write part 4, to respond to it in some way. (Just a warning – there are some spoilers coming up…)
Dunn apparently was drawn to write this book out of two dilemmas – the rise of genetic engineering, and the persistent power of cults. So, where else to centre the book but the family? But the Binewskis are not a parody of the archetypal American family. This is the archetypal Western family in-extremis – inverted as much as perverted. The other side of the same coin.
Dunn’s talent as a writer is to portray these apparently extreme characters in their full humanity, while also showing the complexity and variety of their responses to freakishness, the peculiar power they have over “the normals”. While the novel certainly stirs a whole caravan-load of provocative ideas, those ideas emerge out of the very genuine (albeit inconsistent) connections we forge with these characters. There are moments, arguably entire scenes, where I sensed Dunn getting carried away with her own grotesquerie, where the writer’s own pleasure in acting as a kind of tour-guide through perversity overwhelms her compassion for her characters, and an underlying voyeurism creeps in. In a way, though, with this premise, it was inevitable the dynamics of exploitation would come in, and the reader should feel implicated.
It’s to Dunn’s credit that she is able to depict extreme Otherness in the bodies of some deeply familiar and sympathetic characters. This is a world away from Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo (see my post here), where the human is barely visible beneath the hump. Geek Love extends freakishness out beyond the body into recognisable psychological territory, while also foregrounding its roots in the body and in social interaction. For example, here’s a few of Oly’s astounding, off-hand insights (which this book is littered with).
A small child looked into my face and wanted to stop but his mother dragged him on. Sometimes when I felt the eyes crawling on me from all sides, I got scared thinking someone was looking who wasn’t just curious. I knew it was my imagination and I got used to it, learned to shunt it away. But sometimes I held onto it quietly, that feeling that someone behind or beside me in the crowd – some guy leaning on the target booth with a rifle, or some cranky sweating father spending too much on ride tickets to keep his kids away from him – anybody could be looking at me in the sidelong way that norms use to look at freaks, but thinking of me twitching and biting at the dirt while my guts spilled out of the big escape hatch he’d cut for them… a feeling like that is special. Sometimes you hold onto it quietly for a while.
She talks. People talk easily to me. They think that 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. They begin out of simple courtesy. 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. That’s how it starts. But I am like a stranger on the bus and they get hooked on having a listener. They go too far because I am one listener who is in no position to judge or find fault. They stretch out their dampest secrets because a creature like me has no virtues or morals. If I am “good” (and they assume that I am), it’s obviously for lack of opportunity to be otherwise. And I listen. I listen eagerly, warmly, because I care. They tell me everything eventually…
It seems to me that one of the key ideas that the novel explores is Normality – which is not merely an idea, but an imposing reality, a system of experiences which must be responded to in some way. Each person in the novel has some intense relationship with normality, each embraces and rebels in their own way. And it is also clear that the Binewski children, having been bequeathed their peculiar bodies, which ensure they can “earn a living”, are restricted to the intensely isolated world of the carnival. They know how to spruik and seduce, but they seem entirely ignorant of geography, history and politics – and this isolation shapes their response to normality as much, if not more, than their bodies.
Arturo is arrogantly disdainful of “the norms” – a chance encounter with a heartbroken obese woman during one of his performances begins his career as a cult leader of sorts. Paranoia and cynicism haunt his position of power. The twins (while less complete as characters), in their desire for parenthood, in their awareness of their sexual allure, and in their perennial arguments, wrestle with how to exploit the normal world – also revealing how much they are a part of it. In a mysterious section of the book, Oly has a brief romance, and realises she cannot join the normal world – too much of her identity is tied up with the family, with Arturo.
While most of the novel is told in the past, there is a series of interwoven chapters set in the present, where we meet Miss Lick. She is a wealthy heiress whose secret project is to “transform” young women – to pay them to be mutilated or deformed, to have the beauty that would “hold them back” surgically or violently removed. Oly, knowing that her daughter Miranda is next in line to be “transformed”, cultivates an intimacy with Miss Lick, while planning to kill her. It is in the interactions between them where the novel’s pathos and ethical complexities are tragically and painfully heightened.
And it’s precisely this intensity of engagement, in the midst of its outlandish tide of events, that makes Geek Love‘s overall relationship to “normality” so complex and intriguing. Early in the book, it’s said “Freaks are not made, they’re born”. As it progresses, an ambivalence builds, the suggestion that freakishness is also about power dynamics, enlarged by isolation and a desire to exploit others. The novel ends with Oly revealing to Miranda the truth of her belonging to the family. While the genetic and familial bond is undeniable, exactly how Miranda responds to this truth is left open – it exists beyond the novel, outside of fiction.
Geek Love revels in the fact that there are many kinds of freakishness, and birth is only a starting-point.