Somewhere along the line, I became The A.V. Club’s default Chuck Palahniuk reviewer. I haven’t fully enjoyed any of his books since Survivor, but I kept being drawn to his new releases by a sense of familiarity, an irritating drive toward completism, and a sense of duty—surely someone had to write about them, right? And yet as the years have passed, I’ve seen him delving deeper and deeper into hyper-graphic grotesquerie, trying to top himself with grossness for grossness’ sake, and I’ve gotten less and less interested. Fight Club was a rough, amateurish first novel, but it was about things. It had a point, albeit one expressed in a wonky, staccato, trivia-packed way. I increasingly doubt that his books have points, and I was more than happy to hand the Palahniuk-reviewing mantle over to Zack this year.
Very early on in Geek Love—a book I’d somehow entirely missed out on until Donna suggested it for this feature—I started getting that late-era-Palahniuk vibe. Maybe it was the third or fourth time Katherine Dunn provided a detailed description of a character’s sad, flat, low-dangling breasts: “The fat woman throws her shoulders forward to toss her tits out of their usual resting place beside her sagging navel.” Maybe it was the lengthy write-up of Al and Lil Binewski’s specific efforts to find exciting her ways to poison her womb and mutate her offspring for reasons that seemed more profit-driven than philosophical. Maybe it was the early description of Arturo at age 3, swimming naked in his tank and shocking an audience by turning and “revealing the turd trailing from his muscular little buttocks.” From the first page on, Dunn seems like she’s out to do whatever she can to shock, rattle, and revolt her readers. It’s a sophisticated, thought-through piece of provocation—I think Leonard is right on the money in saying that she’s creating an inverted world, a place where all normal rules and values are reversed.
But my experiences within that world were mostly hollow and bothersome. At times (like with the repetitive descriptions of dangling, deflated breasts) I felt like Dunn was trying too hard, pushing at her readers too blatantly in an attempt to repulse us. And at other times—particularly where Oly’s inexplicable infatuation with Arturo was concerned—I was repulsed, and I had a hard time finding compensatory factors in the rest of the book.
Don’t get me wrong—the plot hooked me early on. As Zack said, we find out early on that most of the characters are somehow out of the picture—which is odd considering their tight-knit bonds and obsessive focus on family—and that alone would have kept me reading to the end, just to find out how the sprawling, weird group of the “past” segments became the pared-down, battered, damaged remnants in the “present” segments. And as the past progresses, there are endless little mini-arcs that I zipped through breathlessly, waiting to find out whether Arturo would succeed in murdering Chick in the cradle, or Iphy and Elly would wind up married or murderers or both, or whether Al would finally figure out how to parlay Chick into big money. I often didn’t enjoy reading Geek Love, but it kept me reeled in until the last act.
Here’s what I liked most about it: First, the style, which is dense and literary rather than pulpy like its subject matter, and second, Dunn’s mastery of the show-don’t-tell rule. Amid all the hideous specificity about what her characters do to themselves, each other, and the world around them, there’s a refreshing ambiguity about why. At times, this was immensely frustrating—as a lot of the commentators have complained in the first three segments of this book-club discussion, it’s hard to empathize with any of the characters when their actions are so extreme and so bizarre. But at the same time, there are deep layers to everyone’s actions. I appreciated not being told outright that Miss Lick is jealous of beautiful women, and that she sets out to mutilate them not out of a twisted, altruistic desire to help them reach their potential, but out of envy and resentment. I appreciated not being told that Al is miserable over his beloved twins being sold to the Bag Man, but feels compelled to put on a brave face because he knows Arturo has all the power and he has none. I appreciated how much of the twins’ relationship and conflicts were kept offstage, that Arturo is a bit of a mystery, and that many of the characters’ actions were self-contradictory, revealing the hidden agendas behind their claims of familial love or devotion to a creed. I was glad to read a book that didn’t spoon-feed me the answers, and left most of the real agendas up to interpretation.
But when it comes down to it, I’m right there with Zack: There are too many things going on in this book, and not enough of them get any sort of depth or resolution. Too often, a great deal of buildup leads straight to an abrupt and unplumbed resolution, the big ones being the circus fire that Chick causes and Oly’s final confrontation with Miss Lick.
And beyond that, I had a serious ongoing problem with my inability to relate to or care for the characters. An awful lot of my emotional involvement with the book was caught up in involuntary yearning, the kind of thing Joss Whedon likes to do to his fans to keep them hanging onto a story: Dunn sets up a tension between characters (mostly, people needing the love of Arturo, who isn’t remotely inclined to supply it) and then cranks up the stakes, guaranteeing that anyone who’s even remotely engaged will be hoping for something to change, whether it’s Arturo relenting and showing any tiny sign of kindness to his stricken, needy family members, or those family members wising up and withdrawing their love. Or even an old-fashioned punishment-drama ending, where Arturo pays for his dastardly crimes. I kept reading to the end hoping for one of these things to happen to resolve the massive tension revolving around Arturo, and none of them ever did.
Which is frustrating in the sense that Zack expresses, in that the shattering of the family feels abrupt and unearned, but it also felt fundamentally unsatisfying to me. I never understood why Oly and Chick and Iphy loved Arturo so much, but I could accept that they did, so long as there was some chance of a dynamic resolution where they learned something, or eventually made a choice I could accept. Instead, I got unending, unceasing devotion that frustrated me more and more as the book went on and Arturo’s behavior became ever more horrific.
So by the end, for me the book broke down into a collection of characters I couldn’t comprehend or actively despised: parents obsessed with freakishness, individuality, and the profit motive, but unable to deal with the monster they’d spawned. Children deluded or actively deluding others, and all generally engaged in hurting themselves or others or both. Equally deluded followers, mutilating themselves for a questionable cause. A lonely obsessive out to damage womankind to make up for her own flaws. Only Miranda seems blameless in all this, and at the same time, she’s both underdeveloped and offensive in her own solipsistic, pushy, grabby way—she’s willing to use Oly to her own ends, without considering Oly’s desires, and she seems remarkably self-absorbed. Which goes for most of the characters, really.
So I’m not sorry I read the book. But I have no desire to ever revisit it. Come to think of it, I’ve felt the same way about the last decade of Chuck Palahniuk’s work.
Donna, here are my answers to your prompts:
• I can’t say I kept turning pages throughout because of any emotional attachment to the characters. Oly struck me as being as damaged and frightening as the rest of them, and I didn’t have any particular hopes for her redemption, or for Miranda to discover and embrace her family heritage. I kept reading for the most basic possible reason: I just wanted to know what happened next, particularly whether Oly would ever wake up from her blind devotion to Arturo, whether Al and Lil would finally grow spines, and what further horrors Arturo would come up with. I wouldn’t say any of this was a special point of connection with the story; I’m just a sucker for narrative.
• “Is there any redemption in the muck?” Only barely. I’m astonished that you’d even imply that the Binewskis’ family love somehow “redeems” what they do to each other; to my mind, the graphic, horrible ways in which they destroy each other only displays how rotten and twisted their love is at the core. That “love” seemed to me to be almost invariably judgmental, possessive, and selfish. With few exceptions—Chick’s needy devotion, Elly and Iphy’s enforced attachment to each other—the family’s “love” all seemed inspired and informed by Al’s horribly self-interested, conditional love for his kids, predicated on how freakish they are. His “love” subjects his wife to endless experiments, holds Oly in disdain because she isn’t an exciting freak, and nearly disposes of Chick before he proves his value. Even Oly’s seemingly pure love for Miranda was suspect for me, because it stems from her unhealthy, possessive adoration of Arturo, and because it was so controlling.
• A lot of the comments here have focused on the way Al and Lil fade away, and the problems that poses for the narrative. Like some of the commentariat, I would have liked that to have been a little better defined. But it never presented a problem for me; as I said above, it seems natural enough to me that, having lost control of their creations, they would retreat from them. This development frustrated me, sure, but I believe it was meant to; it doesn’t strike me as an inherent problem with the narrative, so much as just another hook into our skins, as we wait to see whether rescue is coming from any source whatsoever.
• I can’t speak to the “boho college kids” who first embraced the book, though I would point out that Palahniuk (and Tom Robbins, and Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert Heinlein back in his day, and for that matter Nietzsche) appeals to college kids too—with that first heady flush of freedom and self-determination generally comes a fascination with the transgressive, with anything that questions the values we grew up with, and finds them lacking, or even disposable. So sure, Geek Love questions societal values and decries normality, though for me, it ultimately wound up reaffirming those values, as all the transgressors with their alternate-reality logic and love of the profane and bizarre get punished or destroyed in the end. The book actually wound up striking me as a little reactionary: It builds this whole striking alternate world in which value is found in abnormality, in difference, and then it burns it all to the ground.
• Of course I don’t buy into Arturism, given that it’s one fad among many created by a huckster whose contempt for his followers is vast and ill-concealed. The biggest question I wound up with in the book were whether Arturo’s disciples, having reached “completion,” really did go off to happy homes somewhere to be taken care of for the rest of their lives, or were unceremoniously disposed of in some hideous fashion. I can’t help but think that the whole “We sent Dr. Phyllis on to her well-earned rest” sounds an awful lot like “We sent your dog Barfy out to the country to live with a nice farm family.”
And here’s a prompt of my own, going forward, and headed into the Thursday free-for-all to come. More than anything, I’m curious whether you all—A.V. Clubbers and readers alike—liked the characters in Geek Love as people. Did you empathize with them? Did you feel you understood them? Donna says she cared about Oly and wanted her to find rest and redemption: What did the rest of you want for these characters, if anything?