Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s new monthly book club feature. Each month a rotating panel of book lovers will discuss a book of one panelist’s choosing. (Or a book chosen by A.V. Club readers.) After four days of discussion, we’ll be hosting a live chat about the book. First up: Katherine Dunn’s acclaimed 1989 bestseller Geek Love, selected by Donna Bowman. We’ll be chatting about it here at 5pm ET on Thursday. Please join us.
When I was in graduate school at the University Of Georgia in the early ‘90s, it seemed like everyone I knew was reading Katherine Dunn's Geek Love. Maybe that was because my social circle was unusually obsessed with carnivals and circuses, but I know now that the book had a wider reach as well; it was a finalist for the National Book Award and got rave reviews around the country. I packed it on some road trips and remember being absorbed by the middle chapters, but I don't think I ever finished it. So when Keith proposed a book club focusing on material from the last couple of decades, Geek Love struck me as a perfect choice: a novel that was acclaimed and pervasive in its time, but is now not much discussed. Plus I'd get another chance at finishing it and finding out what all the fuss was about.
And even though I think the story takes some major missteps—we'll get to those eventually, I'm sure—I want to start this conversation with praise for what Dunn does well. Her family of carnies, the Binewskis, are such an extreme collection of freaks that I was at first suspicious of her motives for wallowing in their freakiness. It's like John Irving gone completely round the bend. Yet within three or four chapters, I was caught up in the hermetic emotional world of Olympia, the hunchbacked albino dwarf who narrates the story. Dunn frames the long backstory of the characters, the central narrative of Geek Love, with a present-day plotline in which Olympia reconnects with the daughter she gave away to a convent long ago. It's not until we get close to the end of that long flashback to the Binewski's traveling-carnival days that we fully understand the emotions stirred in Oly's memory by Miss Lick, a rich benefactress who wants to pay Miranda to give up her one deformity.
Even when the weirdness of this family gets out of control—Arturo the Fish Boy, star of the midway thanks to his fervent cult of self-mutilators; Iphigenia and Electra, the conjoined twins who give birth to a would-be murderer's baby despite a partial lobotomy; Chick, the outwardly normal youngest sibling who can move things with his mind; and the parents who retreat into pills and denial as Arty's humbug religion takes over their community—Dunn eventually brings us back to Oly's secret desires and fierce loyalties. Those feelings may get expressed in some bizarre ways (telekinetic incestuous artificial insemination, for example), but they always remain human, and they never failed to affect me.
Here's what I'm interested in finding out from our Wrapped Up In Books participants and those of you reading along at home:
• I kept turning the pages because I cared about Oly and I desperately wanted her to find rest and redemption. What about the rest of you? Did you find something special in the story, the characters, or the writing that impressed and involved you? And how did your personal point of connection relate to the extremes of the novel. Is it because of the freak show, or in spite of it, that you kept reading?
• Geek Love is often excruciatingly nasty. From the conjoined twins selling their virginity to the human feces that the fly-roper uses to attract the stars of his show, this is a novel covered with the ugliest parts of human (and circus freak) behavior. Is there any redemption to be found in the midst of the muck? Does the family love that binds the Binewskis, in all its bizarre expressions, redeem the harshness of their treatment of each other?
• The story starts with the Binewski patriarch and matriarch describing how they engineered their family of medical oddities by experimenting during Lil's pregnancy. But as Arty's star rises, they fade—to the point of raising no protest when Elly gets turned into a vegetable by the surgeon's knife. Is their impotence a problem for the story, or does it serve as a necessary foil for Oly's eventual action on behalf of her child?
• Is the novel an indictment of us "norms" who gawk at the odd and different? Does Dunn lure us in with her freaks and their alternate-reality logic, only to sneer at our preference for egalitarianism and the leveling it would take to achieve? Would we all be Miss Lick, "saving" the exceptional by making them ordinary, if we could? And does this have something to do with the boho college kids who embraced the novel back when it was first published?
• Arturism, the religion of voluntary amputation cynically espoused by Arty the Fish Boy, is perhaps the single wildest premise in a book full of craziness. Do you buy it? And if so, what appendage are you going to start with—one toe at a time, or a bigger cut?