I had read about and been recommended Geek Love multiple times but was always deterred by the back-cover mention of, you know, purposeful in-utero tampering. I’d rather not be present at the birth of Middlesex through the unhappy marriage of John Irving and E. Annie Proulx, and I do think one of the book’s most serious crimes is not giving equal weight to the deliberate acts that create this freakish family – but I’ll get back to that in a second.
It was hard for me to see any family love amidst this morass of competition and physical divisions, except in glimpses of Iphy’s innocent concern for Arty and Chick’s burden of the knowledge that he can hurt everyone around him. (Would that he could have delivered some of that for Arty.) And yet I kept reading in some state of shock and the desire to see how far Dunn would take it.
I agree with Zack that Oly’s other siblings are underdeveloped, particularly Chick. Is it because he was the closest to “norm,” at least outwardly, that Oly is unable to access his thoughts about that metamorphosis? She blames it on how he got “all twisted around” to not wanting to hurt anyone, but there’s a lot we don’t see in his surgery apprenticeship, and the relationship between him and Arty felt simply underdrawn. It’s as if Dunn got to the brink of where she was willing to go in terms of chronicling these tangled webs, but found the dangerous admiration of a younger brother for an older to be out of reach – or too “normy.”
Yet I saw the introduction of Arturism as a step back from Dunn’s darkest detailing of the family dynamic. A child who practically comes out of the womb a carnival barker becoming a religious demagogue with a secret penchant for “norms” may not be able to reclaim human limbs, but he can sure as hell talk a lot of people out of theirs. (Or, as another genetic freak once said, “Flippin’ your fins, you don’t get too far.”) And it’s a powerful salvo in the battle of sibling rivalry that becomes the Binewski back-lot — he may not have the coolest mutation, but none of his siblings started their own religion. We’ve seen this kind of megalomaniac before, even if he didn’t have fins.
That said, Leonard, I have to disagree with you about the latter-day story and not only because it houses my favorite scene in the book — the stalking of Miranda all the way to the Glass House where Oly experiences, then participates in her “act.” (What an exuberant reclaiming of Oly’s show-biz heritage, in an arena where she doesn’t have to share with any of her siblings.) The hope of Miranda for the future, as the sole survivor of this clan of Calibans, tugged me through the increasingly thorny relationships between Oly and her siblings in the past, although I had expected a previous run-in with Miss Lick that never surfaced.
And while it’s clearly outside the bounds of healthy behavior, Oly’s fixation on the daughter she gave up redeems some of the choices she makes early on to retain her place in the family. She may not want her to be a “norm,” but clearly Oly prefers that Miranda live in semblance of a normal life — the art-school homework, the boyfriend — rather than hitting the road full-time.
At least it partly closes the loop left open by the slow disappearance of the Binewski parents, whose mistreatment, of their living children and the ones in the Chute, still stood far above their son’s for me. Arty himself acknowledges this when he explains to doomed reporter Norval Sanderson (can we get some love for this useful literary device?) why he doesn’t accept children: “I figure a kid doesn’t choose. They don’t know enough to choose between chocolate and strawberry, much less between life and limblessness.” Of course, his upbringing suggests that children can prove themselves to be the “hamstrung shitholes” he considers adults to be, and thus should be able to elect to be amputated into helpless torsos in the name of faith.
Yet Oly defiantly defends her parents’ choice while condemning his — or rather, the fact that he was able to get away with it. Sour grapes from the sibling who survived, and who (apart from Chick) seemed to need the least help from them. In the end it’s not Chick, whom desperately wants to do no harm, whom Oly is in love with, and that sounds pretty “norm” to me.
I can’t imagine going back to Geek Love but I have to thank Donna for giving us such an exquisitely weird book to kick off and digest together. It left me with a few indelible images as well as a new horror of amputation, but also a world in which the most pressing concern of a hunchback dwarf is that she doesn’t get enough attention from her brother. Perhaps the assignation of blame at the creation would have tipped this balance after all. As to whether Dunn is indicting us as “norms” peering into this carnival world, well, how could she be when the Binewski family thrived for so long on our voyeurism? Even without our encouragement, they wouldn’t have settled down to a quiet life with Horst’s beer-drinking Texan wench. “If he loves me he’s corrupted,” Elly tells Norval about her all too brief romance with a norm, and coming in contact with the Binewskis does tend to ruin the people in their wake (not to mention the Arturans) – but the rot had set in before the Carnival Fabulon gained its sideshow acts.