I first read Geek Love when it first came out, in 1989. I’m not sure how I heard about it, but I certainly traveled in the kind of circle that would have been fond of it, so it was probably some cute weird girl I liked who told me to read it. Whatever the circumstance, I instantly loved it: its style was strong enough to appeal to my love of flashy prose, and its hooky narrative of a close-knit but tumultuous family of freaks was mightily appealing to me. As is often the case, it led me to seek out everything else by the author I could; but aside from Attic, a strange, Kathy Ackerish account of her time on a magazine crew, Katherine Dunn’s work was hard to find. She turned increasingly to non-fiction and journalism in the 20 years after Geek Love, and more or less fell off my horizon. So when Donna picked this as our inaugural Wrapped Up In Books subject, I was curious to see how I’d react to it now. I no longer think of myself as the alienated outcast I was when I read it the first time; would its fascinating inversion of the idea of normality be as resonant to me now?
Well, no. But surprisingly, while I was able to see the book’s flaws a lot more clearly this time around, I found myself forgiving them for the most part, because I also saw something I liked about it that I barely noticed back then. One of the most common, and misused, bits of praise for this sort of blackly funny, disturbing Lynchian surrealism is that it’s “transgressive”, but more often than not, all that means is that there are a few scenes that are designed to shock a largely imaginary audience of bluenoses. Geek Love, it seems to me on my second reading, is a genuinely transgressive novel in that it places itself fully in a world where the moral benchmarks of modern society are fully inverted, and more importantly, this is presented from the inside out rather than the outside in. The Binewski clan’s freakish appearance is an outward expression of their disturbing behavior (or is it the other way around?), and Olympia never presents it as anything other than perfectly natural. Behavior that normally has attention called to it as outrageous and intolerable—from the very beginning when Al contrives to pollute Lil’s body with toxins in order to build a financially viable cottage industry of freakish children—is instead presented as something that simply takes place as part of the normal order of things in their rarefied environment.
When problems arise, it is not because the world outside intrudes on their bizarre reality; it’s because internal conflicts arise because of factors like parental neglect, sibling rivalry, and petty jealousy that are fodder for any more conventional family drama. Most books of this kind hedge their bets by setting their outcast characters against the normal world; here, the normal world barely exists, and there are no straight characters in the book (even the most conventional figure, Mary Lick, is very distinctively bent). Olympia doesn’t waste any time contrasting her behavior, ranging from her truly unfathomable interaction with Arturo to her creepy, strangely sexualized stalker relationship with her daughter Miranda, against any theoretical norm. The narrative defines its rules right away, and you’re invited to jump in or bugger off. This determination to stay within its own boundaries, however perverse, is Geek Love’s greatest strength, and I liked that aspect of it more than anything I’d seen in it the first time around.
There’s other things to love here: the characters are finely drawn and very distinctive, there are flashes of brilliance in the prose, and a number of the setpieces—especially the big scenes involving Arturo the Fish Boy and his self-abusing cult—are unforgettable. But it’s not a perfect book by any means. The elated theatricality of the first part of the book gets lost when the story shifts to the latter-day story of Olympia, Miranda and Miss Lick, and is never quite picked up again, losing the fine style that kicks off the story. And that’s too bad, because the plot itself is pretty meandering—a fact that’s more noticeable when the prose starts to sag. And the end of the middle passage of the book, before the full background of the Binewski family has been revealed, is pretty slow going, as Dunn can’t sustain the frantic near-hysteria of the beginning and end of the book. But it’s still a very fine piece of work, and the style and story, while not always perfectly complementary, are interesting enough for one to prop up the other when it’s flagging. Dunn’s ability to create a twisted reality of her own, and make all her characters stay firmly within it, is what elevates it from merely good to nearly great.
To Donna’s queries:
• I wasn’t so much concerned with Olympia’s fate or invested in her happiness as I was fascinated by her as the sole source of information about her bizarre family and the book’s only comprehensible emotional connection to them. She’s acceptable, though not wonderful, as a character, but she’s much more effective as a narrator.
• Again, what redeems the ugly behavior and frankly repulsive motivations of the Binewskis, for me, isn’t the depth of their love or any such feel-good factor—it’s how completely immersed in that behavior they are, and how fully Dunn refuses to place it in an external context that would ruin its originality with tedious moralizing. It’s vitally important to the tone of the book that we, the reader, understand that they’re operating in a horrifying way, but that it seem perfectly acceptable to them.
• I completely understand why Al and Lil are shunted to the side once the story of Arturo assumes center stage, but I do find the way it was accomplished a bit problematic. It seemed a bit lazy on my second read.
• I think I more ore less answer the question about Dunn’s attitude towards normality above. I don’t think it’s as simple as indicting normality, though it certainly seemed that way to me as an alienated college student. I think she’s instead creating a situation in which the characters are so immersed in the reality of what their freakishness has created that they’re blind, or simply unconcerned, with any competing conception of normality.
• I never found Arturism that hard to swallow, especially since I heard about the extreme form of body modification known as voluntary amputation around the same time I read Geek Love for the first time. I figured if a reputedly normal person would have a toe or a finger joint cut off for the sake of style, it wouldn’t be that hard to imagine a hardcore cultist lopping off an arm or a leg.