"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Monday, 10 September 2012

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Do not be fooled by the title - Geek Love is not a story about high school nerds finding love against all odds, the ‘geek’ in this brilliantly original and thought-provoking tale is Lillian Binewski. Lil used to make her living by biting the heads off live chickens at her husband’s family carnival. After the carnival suffers a lapse in popularity, Lil and her husband Al cook up a money making scheme to keep themselves in business - they decide to breed their own freak show. Throughout her pregnancies Lily experiments with prescription and illicit drugs, insecticides and radioisotopes to ensure that each child born is more grotesque and mutated than the last. The couple's plan produces a unique and disturbing cast of characters: firstly there is Arturo the Aqua Boy, a hairless child with fins in place of arms and legs, accompanied by a dangerous lust for power; next comes Iphigenia and Electra, beautiful Siamese twins with a talent for music and who are literally ‘joined at the hip’; then we have Olympia, who is a bald, hunchbacked albino dwarf; and lastly the youngest Binewski child, Fortunato or ‘Chick’, who was nearly abandoned at birth by his twisted parents due to his misleading ‘normal’ appearance. In reality though Lily and Al had created their most dangerous and wonderful child-masterpiece to date...

Geek Love is narrated by the dwarf Olympia, or ‘Oly’. The story begins in the present day, with Oly in her 30’s, and then rotates back and forth from there to her former life at the Binewski Fabulon approximately 20 years previously; the narrative is dominated by the story of Oly’s past rather than the account of her present, with the account of her current situation acting as a framework to the main bulk of the novel.

This book is the most captivating, distinct and imaginative story I have read in a long time. As I’m sure you can imagine after reading the premise above, the tale of the Binewski family is rife with implicit shock value, and throughout subverts preconceptions of typical family values. The philosophies of the Binewski family are very disturbing; the children see nothing wrong with their parents having created them as ‘freaks’ and instead they see themselves as the elite and feel sorry for those they call ‘norms’; turning contemporary social conventions on their head:
“What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?”
“The only way you people can tell each other apart is by your clothes.”

The novel offers a lot of food for thought, and questions what should be considered normal, and the extent that the average person fears normalcy and simply blending in with the background, amounting to nothing important:

“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.”

Geek Love has an exemplary writing style, incorporating a real carny-hobo feel into its narrative. Dunn is wholly devoted to capturing Oly’s voice instead of trying to use ill-fitting long words like some authors might, and this makes the whole story feel so much more poignant as it renders the individuals true to life.

The characters in this novel are incredibly vivid and realistic, making them easy to love or hate. Arturo ‘Arty’ is a manipulative, power hungry megalomaniac, who will stop at nothing to be the best and is quite despicable. The twins’ personalities are vibrant enough that they feel like very separate people in spite of their conjoined bodies. Oly is harder to figure out; she is the one who feels the most useless - she doesn’t have her own act like her older siblings, and her loyalty is often divided. Chick is a loveable, innocent character who allows himself to be manipulated and led astray and evokes sympathy in the reader.

Despite the abundance of brilliance this novel exudes, one issue I had with Geek Love was the rushed climax of Oly’s ‘past’; it felt incredibly slapdash in comparison with the rest of the novel, which at times meandered lazily along and was slightly more drawn out than necessary. Only about a page of writing detailed this shocking dénouement, whereas events of much less significance and importance were given many more.

In conclusion, Geek Love is truly one of a kind; I have never read a novel like it before and I doubt I will again. It is a powerful piece that inspires deep reflection, and by its very nature has the ability to shock and disturb, yet without being overtly grotesque. Due to the thought-provoking nature of the text, it would make for great reading and discussion in a literature class so I’d highly recommend this one if you’re part of a book group. The premise might be difficult for some people to swallow, but if you can stomach the initial concept it is a rewarding read that will stay with you for some time afterwards.

Rating: 10/10

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