Wendy (here_be_dragons) wrote,

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#81 - Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

#81 - Geek Love - by Katherine Dunn

Wow. Really. Wow. This was a bizarre book, almost squicky, and yet I really loved reading it (although there was a time in my life when I wouldn't have been able to make it through). This was one of the books selected this month by rapidreaders, so I decided to give it a try. In a nutshell (and this should probably be noted as a MINOR SPOILER), there is a married couple who operate a traveling "carnival," which goes into decline, so they decide to re-invigorate it by breeding a family of freaks, to perform in shows. This is done by carefully thought-through applications of hazardous substances - drugs, radioactive material, arsenic and other poisons . . . and their resulting creations include a set of Siamese twins, "Aqua Boy" who has only flipper for arms and legs, a hunch-backed albino dwarf (whose disfigurements are so "slight" as to make her less valuable than the others), and boy who looks normal, but turns out to have startling powers of his own.

In other words, this is a really freaky premise (no pun intended). And it gets stranger and stranger . . .


Overall, I found I was able to watch as the author continued to pull out new horrors and spring them upon us, and got to a point where I wasn't really horrified anymore. Very strange, especially in retrospect. Somehow, even the most bizarre things seemed "normal." The Bag Man? Oh, yeah - weird, but whatever. In any other book, he'd be the sole source of numerous nightmares ::grin::, but here, he was just another guy with an unusual problem, another piece in a very strange puzzle. I think I lost my ability to be truly shocked right around the time I began picking up on the references to the Arturans. Ah ha - Arty formed a religion? By the time we found out what it actually entailed, well, I was already deep enough in the book to take it in stride. Same with Mary Lick. Like I said above, there was a time when I couldn't have read this book. Just the description of what Lil did during her pregnancies would have caused me to put it down and run in the other direction. Now, though, I found I was able to handle it (although, to some degree I think I did it by almost shutting down a whole section of my brain, which wanted to scream "WTF!!!!!").

But the most interesting thing, to me, was to realise that if you take away the grotesquery, you're left with an even more chilling portrait of regular ole' nasty human behaviour and emotions. Arty wasn't a psychopath because his body was deformed. (At least I don't believe that was the case). He was a psychopath because of the way his mind worked. Utterly chilling. And the fact that the rest of the family went along with him as they did just boggled my mind. But Arty's behaviour (as well as other things that happen) never seemed to me to be a product of the unusual nature of the family. It was simply human behaviour (albeit bad behaviour), and the carnival was just a startlingly unusual backdrop with horrors rather more disturbing than what I usually encounter in the books I read.

I did finish the book with some unanswered questions (which can actually be a good thing - it sort of makes the world more real in a way) . . . I would have liked to know how and why Elly killed Mumpo. (And, for that matter, who the hell came up with the name MUMPO)? ::grin:: We never do learn why Fortunato's nickname was "Chick," but the question that most "troubles" me is this: What was Mary Lick really going to do to Miranda? Because I don't for a minute believe that she'd have been satisfied with removing the girl's tail. That was not at all her MO. If anything, Miranda would have been *more* attractive (or at least more conventionally attractive) without it. About half-way through the book, I had this terror that Oly wouldn't succeed in stopping the surgery, and that Miranda would wake up leg-less, or something equally dire. (Although, in the context of the book, it might have turned out not to be dire at all ::grin::). In any case, I feel like we were missing part of the picture in that bit of the story, but fortunately (for Miranda, surely), it turned out not to be an issue, after all.

Geek Love was utterly fascinating, and I'm really glad I read it. What a cool book.

I have also given my answers to some discussion questions
These discussion questions were originally posted here:


1. When Chick is born, the family is ashamed and wants to get rid of him because he appears to be normal; Olympia speaks of escaping childhood knowledge into the innocence of adulthood; and eventually people who come to Arty’s shows pay to have their limbs amputated so they can feel whole again. What is Dunn suggesting through these reversals of values? What does she accomplish by subverting our “normal” ways of perceiving these things?

My guess is that it has something to do with overloading those parts of our brain which would usually be completely repulsed, so that the repulsive seems ordinary, and then sneaking in smaller things - that would usually make us go, "huh?" but in this context don't really register. Perhaps the biggest example of this (to me) is that no one ever really seems to question Arty's domination of the family. Why not? What the heck was going on with Lil and Al that they succumbed to the force of Arty's personality? We never question this - possibly because we're so focused on the "Aqua Boy" aspects of Arty, that it never really occurs to us to wonder just why on earth the family dynamic was as it was. Lil complained about Chick's health, but never did anything. Why? Who knows - it never became an issue, because so many other things grabbed our attention. Why did Arty allow the man who tried to assassinate him and his siblings to join the carnival? ::shrug:: . . . who knows, and what's up with the dude's FACE?

She might also be pointing out that something other than the physical world is really important. It's possible to survive with out looking like "everyone" else, or conforming. Most of us would (IMO) not want to even consider having to do it (losing a limb, for example). But we could survive if it happened. Would it be liberating? Probably for some people, yes; for others, no. Although I'm not sure how *choosing* to disfigure oneself would help achieve this liberation. Although I suppose there might be an argument that there's something Buddhist about it (taking non-attachment to an extreme). Although, it seems as though perhaps non-attachment (literally) to body parts was usually concealing an unhealthy attachment to something else, going on inside.

I did find it interesting that, at the beginning of the book, I was very disturbed by the thought of deliberately sabotaging the health of one's children. But not long into the book, I found that this faded, and that I accepted the characters as themselves - they weren't "handicapped" . . . just different and living different (but not less meaningful) lives because of it. The horrible things that happened came from sick human emotions allowed to go out of control, not because of the physical deformities.

2. Katherine Dunn employs many unusual words in Geek Love: skootching, skuttered, rooched, snorking, frowzled, etc. What do such words add to the flavor of the novel? In what ways is such language appropriate to the story Dunn is telling?

I hardly ever noticed those words (I think rooched was the only one that caught my attention), probably because I tend to use similar language myself (when speaking, at least; not as much in writing). For me, they made me feel comfortable, and made Oly (in particular, as the primary narrator) seem more "normal" - more like myself. Not sure if this was what Dunn was trying to achieve, though. ::grin::

3. In his journal, Norval Sanderson writes, “General opinion about Arty varies, from those who see him as a profound humanitarian to those who view him as a ruthless reptile” [p. 273]. Which of these views is more accurate? Is Arty a healer or a huckster? (I think this one is a little obvious)

Nothing reptilian about him. (I like reptiles) ;-). He was human - and a deeply horribly human, at that. I suppose it would be facile to say that his state of mind was not connected to his physical disfigurement (and oh, how he would hate to hear me call it that) . . . but I got the feeling that he would have been that sort of a person - megalomaniacal - regardless of what his body was like. Perhaps I'm not giving enough weight to the effect of his physical condition on Arty. But I just can't help but feeling that his trouble stemmed from internal, not external, malformity.

4. Why does Dunn use the story of Hopalong McGurk, Miranda, and Mary Lick, which occurs in the fictional present, to frame the main narrative of the rise and fall of the Binewski family? What does each story line contribute to the other? In what ways is Mary Lick like Arty?

I think that Mary and Arty were most alike in their egocentricity, or self-absorbtion. What I mean by that is that neither of them seemed to have any ability to empathise with others - although at one point Arty is described as all empathy (IIRC), but in reality, they both seemed to see people only in terms of how those people made them (Mary and Arty) feel. They knew what was "best" (even if others didn't agree), and they both had the ability to make things happen as they wanted - Arty through the force of his personality, and Mary through her bank account. They both used people (although for somewhat different reasons), and they probably really did both believe (on some level) that they were doing the "right" thing. (Mary more than Arty, I think).

As for ways the storylines contributed to one another . . . well, she does allow us certain knowledge about the past before we actually "witness" the events in that part of the narrative. So we know all along where the Binewski story is going - we just don't know how it's going to get there. But more importantly, for me, the way the stories were entwined together built tension regarding Miranda. I thought about the Arturans (knowing that Mary knew all about them), and about Doc P (I think that's what she was called), and I became worried that some of the things we'd seen in the past would be re-manifest in the future. Plus, I think it really emphasised the growth in Oly's personality - she went from being pretty much completely subservient to Arty to a place where she was able to do something very drastic in defense of her daughter.

5. Olympia says that Miss Lick’s purpose in arranging disfiguring operations is to “liberate women who are liable to be exploited by male hungers. These exploitable women are, in Miss Lick’s view, the pretty ones.” After they lose their beauty they can “use their talents and intelligence to become powerful” [p. 162]. Is this a valid critique of the constraints of attractiveness for women? What does the novel as a whole say about the relation between appearance and power?

Well, there are lots of things said about appearance and power, and also about physical ability and power. Arty, who was incapable of doing much of anything with his physical body (he couldn't have cared for himself; couldn't even beat Oly properly when he tried) is, arguably, the most powerful character in the book. But not because of his physical body, nor because of his appearance. I'm sure the show in the tank was part of his mystique, but it was Arty's mind and personality which allowed him to conquer almost all the people in his life.

As for Mary, while there is merit in promoting the truth that physical appearance is not (and should not be) the only standard by which one is judged, I'm not able to see any positive purpose in her way of "liberating" these women. It seems even more twisted than the Arturans (and they were pretty darned twisted, IMO). Although even now I have a tiny shred of doubt that maybe I'm being closed-minded in this. Maybe shedding body parts willingly (or allowing oneself to be disfigured) would bring some sort of enlightenment or liberation. I just think there are easier (and healthier?) ways of going about it.

6. In one of Arturo’s statements to Norval Sanderson, he says, “I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique” [p. 223]. Is he right? Do most people fear being ordinary?

Hmnh. I think there are people who do fear being ordinary. I've always assumed that they are in the minority, though, and that most people would much rather conform. Well, certainly in looking around at people in the world (at least my corner of it), conformity is what happens the most, on the outside, anyway. Now, many things which started out as non-conformist have become at least somewhat mainstream (I'm thinking pink hair and piercings, for example) - and I do think that there are people who try very hard to be noticeably unique. This, however, I think is most often born of insecurity, not any sort of health. Ultimately, people who are truly healthy don't focus as much on a quality like "ordinariness," because it implies comparison with others, and it seems to me that we are all (or should be) striving to be happy with ourselves, when judged against our past and potential future selves, rather than against others. Of course, I also don't think that most people are there yet - lots of people probably don't even have an awareness of the concept. But I still tend to think that most people would prefer anonymity to over-exposure. At least on a conscious level.

7. Do you think Miranda will embrace or reject her Binewski heritage?

I think she'll embrace it. She was able to take her own, relatively minor, disfigurement and turn into something positive. I don't know that she'll go on the road as Oly hoped, but I don't think she'll hate or be embarrassed about her heritage, once she gets used to the idea.

X-posted here to rapidreaders.
Tags: books

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