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Family Circus: Katherine Dunn's Geek Love

Michael Abernethy

Abernethy learns to look below the surface of appearances with the aid of a book that funhouse-mirrors our own ugliness and holds it up to the light in lurid spectacle.

When a friend recommended Geek Love to me, I imagined a tale of two nerds brought together through their passion for Star Trek and video games, a tale which reaffirmed that there truly was someone for everyone, even those souls lacking in beauty and social skills. Upon starting the book, I immediately learned that the geeks of the title aren't nerds, but circus freaks, aka "geeks", and the love referred to in the title is more familial than romantic. And there isn't someone for everyone.

I fell in love with this warped tale of a dysfunctional family almost 20 years ago. Despite its nomination for a National Book Award, this isn't a book I recommend to just any lover of literature. If your tastes run more to the nature of Jane Austen or Robert Browning, Geek Love is not the novel for you. It is gross, revolting, tragic, bizarre, shocking, and extraordinarily moving.

Katherine Dunn's 1983 novel is the first-person story of Olympia Binewski, an albino, bald dwarf with a hunchback. Olympia's freakish nature is not an aberration of nature so much as a carefully planned deviation. Olympia, or Oly, is one of four freak children born to Al and "Crystal Lil" Binewski, who run a traveling circus and create their own sideshow freaks by feeding Crystal Lil poisons, pills, insecticides, and radioisotopes during her pregnancies. Those children who fail to survive the traumatic pregnancies are preserved in jars for public viewing; those who do survive are put to work in the circus. This foundation takes the novel into the realm of the surreal, but Dunn doesn't seek to just startle or disgust viewers. She examines human nature and relationships from an alternative perspective, challenging perceptions of what love is and what is "normal".

Referenced book:
Geek Love
by Katherine Dunn

1983, 368 pages, $13.00

The novel exists in two worlds -- the circus world of Oly's youth, and the present day world of Portland, where the adult Oly has settled into a boarding house run by her mentally incapacitated mother, who is the victim of years of ingesting drugs, making her unable to recognize even her own daughter. Also living in the house is Oly's daughter Miranda, a beautiful young woman who has never known her mother. Thus, three generations of Binewski women live together, connected only by Oly's knowledge of their relationship.

As Oly recalls her youth, it becomes clear that Al and Crystal Lil are proud and doting parents to their four/five children, the oldest of which is Arturo (Arty), also known as Aqua Boy, born without arms and legs but with flippers attached to his torso. Arty becomes the dominant force in the family and the deviant equivalent of a traveling evangelist whose followers self-mutilate to be more like him. Next are the twins, Electra (Elly) and Iphigenia (Iphy), born with two torsos but one set of hips and legs binding them permanently together. Oly is the third child, followed by Fortunato (Chick), a child normal in appearance who possesses the ability to move things with his mind. As Arty becomes a cult leader, Al and Crystal Lil increasingly submit to his will, and his power leads Oly and Chick to grow closer, allowing Oly to experience the closest thing to a traditional family relationship she will know.

Oly's recollections of this time are the core of the book and represent Dunn's best writing. In a 1996 interview, Dunn noted that Geek Love was inspired by two concerns: the rise of genetic manipulation, or "nature versus nature", and the controlling structure of cults, "the fundamental notion of giving up responsibility to an outside power" (Katy Lain, "Dead and Circuses: A Conversation With Katherine Dunn", 7 July 1996, Both Oly's present and past are filled with the physically deformed and the "norms", or "normal" people, whose fascination with the geeks make them easy pray for those desiring power, but the themes of the novel are most clearly represented in Oly's childhood.

Within Oly's language lies an intense desperation for normalcy, not so much in her appearance as in her desire for a nurturing home life and a need to escape the suffocating attention focused on her manipulative brother. Oly is not useful to the family except as menial labor; she is not deformed enough to be a star, nor does she possess any particular talent like the musically gifted twins. Consequently, her relationship with her family is warped, as she loves and loathes Arty, is spurned by the twins, and feels detached from her parents. Her yearnings are both brutally blunt and eloquent:

"Sometimes just looking at Al and Crystal Lil I wanted to bash their heads with a tire iron. Not to kill them, just to wake them up... I suppose I wanted them to save me from my own hurts and the moldering arsenic ache of jealousy. I wanted back into the child mind where Mama and Papa lived, the old fantasy where they could keep me safe even from my own nastiness."

It is this desolation which inspires Oly to have her daughter. Dunn's prose detailing Miranda's conception contrasts the harshness found in other sections of the novel; here, she is subtle, most likely because the novel veers into the realm of incest. Miranda is also Arty's daughter, sired when Chick uses his mental powers to impregnate Oly with Arty's sperm. Arty is oblivious to what has happened; Oly is overjoyed: "Don't ever doubt that it was an act of love...I was beside myself with glory." And so another dimension of human nature which makes us squeamish, incest, is made more palatable through our affection for the 17 year-old dwarf.

It is for Miranda that Oly has written her life story. As a grown-up in Portland, Oly works at a radio station and has devoted herself to protecting her daughter, who knows her only as the nice lady who lives downstairs. This portion of the novel is less satisfying than Olympia's recollections of her childhood, although the same themes are present -- genetic mutation and cult power. Despite her parentage, Miranda's sole deformity is a tail which is easily hidden, and she gains the attention of Miss Lick, a wealthy older woman who arranges disfigurements for attractive women. Oly becomes determined to stop Miss Lick from doing the same to her daughter.

The telling of Oly's struggle to save her child contains the novel's only major flaws. The first of these cannot be easily discussed, as doing so necessitates revealing the surprising ending of the novel. However, it can safely be said that it is a problem with the narrative structure and the author's control of time which weakens the novel's conclusion.

The second flaw of the novel is that Dunn only allows the reader to know Miranda superficially. We learn the details of Miranda's life, as well as the depth of Oly's love for her, but the limited and stilted conversations between the two prevent the reader from growing to share Oly's affection for her daughter and concern for her fate. Consequently, it is more difficult to become immersed in the passages which take place in the present.

Again, as an adult, Oly allows her familial relationships to define her, and again she must keep her true feelings hidden. Often, I found myself resenting Miranda for denying Oly a life sans worry, even though she was unaware of the effect she was having on her mother. Dunn excels so well in making the reader care about the fate of Oly that there is a yearning for the narrative to refocus on her when attention is focused elsewhere.

Fortunately, the two tales -- Oly's childhood and adulthood -- are interwoven. Had they been told chronologically, the last third of the story would have been anticlimactic. Additionally, it allows Dunn to parallel the stories. Both Oly's youth and her experience with her daughter end tragically; interweaving the story results in a one-two punch for the reader. Often times, the quality of a book is measured by how much the reader wants the story to continue once the end is reached. With Geek Love, I was glad to reach the last page, emotionally drained and unable to take anymore of the heartbreak Dunn was intent on spreading, yet still glad to have shared Oly's narrative.

Where Geek Love succeeds most is in forcing the reader to reevaluate their perceptions of normalcy. We can't help but look at those who are different, knowing fully that it isn't polite to stare. So we sneak glances, quickly looking away when the object of our attention turns our way. We imagine what life must be like for them; surely, they can't think like we do, since their experiences have been so far removed from the normalcy of our own. For Dunn, this is a fallacy; human experiences and the mixed emotions which accompany them transcend physicality and demographics, even to those segments of society which the norms delude themselves into thinking they have nothing in common with.

In telling Oly's story, Dunn sets the elements of traditional familial conflict -- the desire for love, struggle over power, and need of protection -- in the most untraditional of families. But the struggles are easily identifiable from our own lives and experiences, and how the Binewskis handle the turmoil of their daily lives reminds us of how we have dealt with the same problems. The Binewskis are us, all of our ugly warts and flaws placed clearly in view for the world, our imperfections magnified to the dimension we perceive them to be.

In the 20 years since I read Geek Love, I've viewed the people around me differently. Behind each disfigured face or every burn-scarred body is a person with a story like my own, someone probably looking at me wondering how I got this ugly scar on my arm and why I can't do anything to control my freaky, curly hair. For that understanding, I am indebted to Dunn. The greatness of her novel lies not in the power of her writing or the depth of her imagination, but in her ability to open minds and change perceptions.

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