Here’s what I found so remarkable about Geek Love: The book spends its 350 or so pages completely immersed in the world of physical and mental grotesquerie without once coming up for air—as others have stated, we never get a chance to go outside this world and look in—and remains as unsettling on the last page as it is on the first. And it does so without upping the ante. It’s not like Dunn keeps offering images of ever-deepening grotesquerie; the opening descriptions of the Binewski children and how they came to be is as revolting as anything in the book. It’s that she never lets readers get comfortable in the world. There never is, as might be expected, just a different type of normal at work beneath the surface of the Fabulon and those it attracts. These are freaks through and through.
That’s why, despite superficially similar sensibilities, I don’t think Tim Burton would be the right director to make a Geek Love movie. Burton’s name has been bandied about for the project over the years but his films—which I usually like and occasionally love—are ultimately about reassuring viewers that misfits and weirdos are fundamentally the same as everyone else. It’s okay to be different and eccentric, damaged, and broken characters—be they Pee-wee, Edward Scissorhands, Jack Skellington, or Batman—often make the world a better place. There’s not really a way to make Geek Love say that. Here twisted exteriors house even more twisted psyches.
That Dunn invests them with recognizable human desires only makes the novel more effective. Olympia wants to love and protect her daughter. Arturo wants to be loved. The Chick wants to help others. But even the purest desires get as distorted as the bodies into which they were born, bodies that never really gave them a chance. Dunn’s novel is almost as fatalistic as the Greek tragedies its family bloodshed and character names evoke. Olympia may be the heart and soul of the book, but its philosophical sympathies fall more into line with Miss Lick’s view of the world. Biology is destiny. And what biology doesn’t decide for us, family locks down.
Or maybe the book’s about getting past that notion. Does Olympia go to such desperate lengths to ensure Miranda won’t end up under Miss Lick’s knife because, as someone earlier in the discussion suggested, she doesn’t want her to erase the one piece of evidence tying her to her circus past? Or is it because she’s so repulsed by the way Lick’s notion of reshaping bodies to reshape character mirrors her father’s sideshow eugenics? One may have been disgusted by “norms” and the other at once repelled and attracted to the unusual while seeking to eliminate it. But they both define people first and foremost by what makes them stick out. Maybe Olympia is trying to give her daughter a future defined by something else. But whatever shape that future may take falls outside the confines of the book. There’s no room for non-freaks here.
I admire that commitment and Dunn’s refusal to provide the readers with any comfort as story grow evet more distressing. I also think the novel gets away from Dunn at a certain point. As page-turnery as every chapter is, I couldn’t help feel that I was reading a smaller story stretched out beyond its comfortable length. The later chapters feel a bit bogged down as they lurch toward a conclusion whose mystery is not whether or not it will end in tragedy but what form that tragedy will take. That said, some of the most striking parts of the book occur late: the final flowering of Arturism, for one, the sad fate of the twins and their child for another.
But what I’ll take away from the novel, besides its grotesque extremes, will be Dunn’s lyrical descriptions of Binewski life in the early chapters and Olympia’s moving desire for her daughter’s well being. Here is a woman bred for profit, born to parents fundamentally incapable of giving her love, and caught up in power struggles almost from her birth. She’s trying to do something right for someone else for once, even if she goes about it using violence and manipulation, tools as much her birthright as her hump, her baldness, and her disconcerting eyes. She’s trying to make a better tomorrow, but she has only yesterday’s tools at her disposal. Then again, who has anything else?
Postscript: Predecessors and followers
Reading Geek Love I found myself constantly reminded of a few other works I’ve encountered in the last year and a half or so. As outrageous as Arturism’s better-living-through-voluntary-amputations-faith is, it’s not without precedent in fiction or the real world. One—and hat tip to the commenter who already beat me to referring to this—is an insane, and occasionally brilliant, 1952 science fiction novel by Bernard Wolfe called Limbo, which I covered as part of my Box Of Paperbacks series. It’s set in a dystopian future in which voluntary amputees—“volamps”—have become heroes of a radical peace movement fond of slogans like, “TWO LEGS SHORTER, A HEAD TALLER.” A man with no arms, after all, cannot hit anyone. I think Arturo, on the other hand, has only perverse impulses behind this act of faith. That and it makes his followers easier to control.
There’s also an only-okay 2008 movie called Quid Pro Quo about the real, if rare, world of wannabes, able-bodied people who fetishize and aspire to paralysis and amputation, a subject also covered by the documentary Whole, which I have not seen. A recent piece at a site called ScienceBlogs that makes a case for the condition being more neurological than psychological.
Finally, I read Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian immediately before reading this. It’s a book in which a man uses his immeasurable wealth to stage a series of elaborate practical jokes, most predicated on the notion that people will suffer any kind of indignity and humiliation for money. A key difference: I think the sympathies of Southern’s book lie squarely with its prankish hero while Geek Love makes a villain of Miss Lick’s attempt to improve society by removing its beauty and weirdness. Both books are ultimately anti-square, but Dunn offers a far more complex vision than Southern’s biting, clever, but ultimately one-note satire. And while I don’t think Geek Love is successful at every stage, I’m happy that the literary world has willful deformities like Dunn’s book to keep it lively and honest.