Book Review: “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn

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“‘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.319.

Re-published by Abacus twenty five years after its original release, this brand edition of the American cult classic Geek Love features a handsome new cover boasting endorsements from Kurt Cobain to Douglas Coupland, Audrey Niffenegger to Jeff Buckley, with Terry Gilliam calling it ‘the most romantic novel about love and family I have read’. Impressive stuff. The story itself revolves around the Binewskis, a family of carnival performers who travel around the United States flaunting their full array of talents to ever-increasing crowds of spectators. Yet the Binewskis are far from being your typical American family, and this is no typical gang of carnies; each child, and performer, is a labour of love on the part of Crystal Lil and Alonysius, the matriarch and patriarch of the family who together decide to thwart the declining carnival business they have inherited from Al’s parents by producing their very own panoply of disparate and eccentric performers. Experimenting heavily with all sorts of drugs and chemicals while pregnant, Lil gives birth to a colourful cast of characters that become Geek Love: Arturo, known as Arty or later Aqua Boy, a megalomaniac with flippers instead of limbs; gifted musicians and conjoined twins Electra and Iphigenia; Fortunato, known in the family as Chick, the youngest born who appears to be a ‘norm’ but is discovered to hold potent telekinetic powers; and finally our narrator Olympia, a bald, hunchedbacked albino dwarf who becomes the mouthpiece for her family both at the carnival—where she is trained up by her father as an orator—and in the form of the book itself.

 

Geek Love is a complex novel that resists definition. It is family history, yes, but told from the perspective of Oly, the book also acts as a love letter to her only daughter, Miranda, who Olympia is forced to abandon due to her normalcy. It is also a study about family and familial love, a biting social satire and a celebration of diversity. From the off it is all go, a rollicking read that charts the peaks and troughs of the Binewski’s endlessly entertaining escapades across the US. From the novel’s vibrant cast of characters, it is Arturo the Aqua Boy who emerges as the principal character. Throughout the children’s youth, it is Arty who yearns for power among his siblings and in the family at large, and it is something he achieves through his dedication to his act. As the novel proceeds, Arty germinates a powerful and disturbing cult, called ‘Arturism’, founded

“‘on the greed and spite of a transcendental maggot … who used his own genetic defects and the weakness of the unemployed and illiterate to create an insanely self-destructive following that fed his maniacal ego’”(p.268) (Arty is so thrilled by this term that he goes on to use the term ‘Transcendental Maggot’ as another of his nicknames—a great example of the novel’s type of humour).

In a perverse form of imitation, Arty requests that his followers demonstrate their dedication to his cause by having their limbs decapitated until they reach the demigod-like limbless status himself. Yet it is not only ‘the unemployed and illiterate’ who are drawn to his cult; graduates from Yale and Harvard soon rock up hoping to spend their summers away from college adulating the renowned Aqua Boy, many of whom jeopardise their studies in order to remain in his cult.

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As the moon of Arturism rises, however, that of the Binewski family is steadily on the decline. Crystal Lil and Al, once the masterminds and puppeteers of their carnival, quickly lose control of their grand project as Arty takes over the reins. What is once a happy, self-sufficient, interdependent family body becomes fragmented and disintegrated thanks to Arturo’s megalomaniacal wants and needs. The narrative gathers pace steadily until it becomes an uncontrollable, tumultuous ball of mess that crashes tragically towards the end where we are met by nostalgic, regretful and touching passages from Olympia who addresses her daughter with complete transparency in the hope that Miranda might be able to comprehend her mother’s decision to orphan her when still a baby.

 

The above barely touches on the central events of Geek Love and there is a whole whirlwind of other events and narratives going on around this. One of the most significant narratives is that surrounding a character named Miss Lick. The novel begins from its end point, with Miranda by now a fully grown woman doing what she can in the world to get by. Olympia is living in the same building as Miranda and decides to follow her daughter, who is still unware that Olympia is her mother, one evening to discover what she does to earn her living. Oly is led to kind of fetishist strip club, where Miranda’s only peculiar feature of having a small tail is a central selling point in her performance. Yet Miss Lick wants to draw Miranda away from this; as Olympia notes, “Miss Lick’s purpose is to liberate women who are liable to be exploited by male hungers… Miss Lick has great faith in the truth of this theory. She herself is an example of what can be accomplished by one unencumbered by natural beauty. So am I” (p.230). In the first instance, it is interesting that Dunn has Miranda unknowingly continue her family’s tradition; she is selling her unique physiognomy to consumers for a monetary gain, essentially the same thing her mother, aunts, uncles and grandparents did for the most part of their lives. Miss Lick not only seeks to help Miranda come away from this type of business, to use her natural beauty and intelligence to gain a way in the world, but Miss Lick also helps Olympia in her later life. She teaches her to swim, for example, and Oly actually comes to realise that ‘she is the only friend I’ve ever had’ (p.467). Miss Lick is a feminist hero of sorts, the only character who provides any sort of resolution at the end of this completely bonkers novel.

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In addition to gender and gender roles, Geek Love explores an impressive number of complex themes. Family is obviously a central one, and although the Binewski family seem so fundamentally different to your own in terms of who they are, what they look like and how they think, their sheer dedication to their family body is something that many families can relate to. So there are passages, such as the one below, where even criticising or talking ill of the family can result in violent outbursts:

“ ‘Mama, Elly isn’t there anymore. Iphy’s changed. Everything’s changed. The whole berry business, cooking big meals that nobody comes for, birthday cakes for Arty. It’s dumb mama. Stop pretending. There isn’t any family anymore, Mama.’

Then she cracked me with the big spoon. It smacked wet and hard across my ear, and the purple-black juice sprayed across the table. She stared at me, terrified, her mouth and eyes gaping with fear. I stared gaping at her. I broke and ran.” p.397

Power in relationships is another central theme, and one which focalises largely on Arturo.  With the benefit of hindsight, Olympia is later able to impart a more objective view on Arturo’s megalomania:

“General opinion about Arty varies, from those who see him as a profound humanitarian to those who view him as a ruthless reptile. I myself have held most of the opinions of this spectrum at one time or another. Watching Arty pine for Iphy, however, I have come to see him as just a regular Joe—jealous, bitter, possessive, competitive, in a constant frenzy to disguise his lack of self-esteem, drowning in deadly love, and utterly unable to prevent himself from gorging on the coals of hell in his search for revenge” (p.390).

As a woman who is largely repressed by Arturo for large parts of this novel, it is illuminating that Dunn allows Olympia the space to reflect in retrospect on her relationship with her brother and actually have her reprimanding herself and Arty. The more I think about it, the more fascinating gender in this novel appears to me, and I think it would make an incredibly rich text to explore in the classroom. Wacky, bonkers, touching, emotive, laugh-out-loud funny and at times incredibly sad, Geek Love hit all the notes for me and this is an elegant edition that I will be thoroughly recommending to friends.

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Geek Love is available to buy from Abacus here. Thanks to Poppy for the review copy, and thank you for reading!

 

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“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler

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“Those who know me now will be surprised to hear that I was a great talker as a child…”

“My father would come to my bedroom door each night to wish me happy dreams and I would speak without taking a breath, trying desperately to keep him in my room with only my voice. I would see his hand on the doorknob, the door beginning to swing shut. I have something to say! I’d tell him, and the door would stop midway.

Start in the middle then, he’d answer, a shadow with the hall light behind him, and tired in the evenings the way grown-ups are. The light would reflect in my bedroom window like a star you could wish on.

Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.”

 

Taking her father’s advice, Rosemary Cooke begins her story somewhere near the middle, as a 22 year-old student at the University of California, Davis, reflecting on her family upbringing. It is a subject, she tells us, that she normally avoids. In fact she has a designated story of digression which she can routinely fall into when the topic does occasionally crop up, which will allow her to divulge in a family story that actually reveals nothing about the supposed irregularity of her upbringing. What is she so keen to avoid? Well she soon explains that it has been ten years since she last saw her brother, Lowell, as he boarded a bus and absconded the family home. Why he left is shrouded in mystery, but it seems that since he went he has been getting himself into a spot of bother, especially when the FBI rock up at the family home. What is even more peculiar is that Rosemary has not seen her twin sister, Fern, for 17 years when she left the family home at the tender age of five. Rosemary spent the aftermath of that split in the company of her grandparents, a central narrative in this novel which sees Rosemary piece together her enigmatic childhood and the fragmentation of her family by piecing together the opaque fragments of her recollections alongside information she gleans as the novel proceeds.

 

You can only discuss We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to a certain point before revealing a crucial plot twist. Karen Joy Fowler goes a miraculous 77 pages before revealing this nuance but I don’t think I will be able to get past this sentence, and so if you are about to read the book and don’t want this information to be revealed then I advise you to bookmark the page and dive straight into the book. But when Fern is unveiled as a chimpanzee who was reared alongside our protagonist as an experiment understandably changes the dynamics of the work. However, by leaving this detail out for the best part of a quarter of the novel, it is fair to say that Fowler wants readers to consider this family as normally as possible before we jump to the conclusions and assumptions we typically would when faced with a family bringing up a chimpanzee as part of a social experiment. After the revelation, the narrative does shift to become more explicitly political and suggestive about animal rights, protection and essentially to the human perspective of creatures not considered to be human. It does so by including numerous anecdotes of similar scientific experiments, their outcomes, consideration of the cases of other creatures and so on. In the end it all focalises back to the empathy we feel towards Fern gained from the first-person perspective of her sister, Rosemary. However one of my reservations about WAACBO is that Rosemary’s digression to discuss other anecdotes and into the minutiae of different research could be difficult to follow at times and did draw attention away from the main strand of the narrative. BUT Rosemary does inform us in her prologue that she has always been a good talker, and so the digressing may also be a realistic part of her personality.

 

And the realism of her character was, for me, absolutely the best part of this book. The narrative voice is brilliantly engaging, entertaining, but also thought-provoking. Rosemary herself admits that her recollection of her memories is fallible and you soon find that you should take everything Rosemary says with a pinch of salt and try to consider the narrative as objectively as you possibly can. I also found Rosemary’s narration hilarious, a bit edgy and quirky, but always extremely funny. From describing how her didactically-inclined father, “a college professor and a pedant to the bone” ensured that “every exchange contained a lesson, like the pit in a cherry” to the effervescent exchange that opens the novel when Harlow (I love this description) “threw a spoon that bounced audibly off [a young man’s] forehead”, Rosemary’s ability to polish her anecdotes with a colourful shining of wit makes this novel tireless and a pleasure to read.

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Despite its humour, WAACBO is a novel with a poignant purpose and serious themes. It is about animal rights, animal protection and the attitude that humans take towards animal experimentation. It is about discrimination, communication and the human rejection to include ourselves as part of the animal kingdom. But it is foremost a novel about family, about love and what makes us the species that we are. WAACBO is completely original in its blend of laugh-out-loud entertainment, engagement with contemporary world issues and I would thoroughly recommend this Booker Prize longlisted novel.

 

What did you think of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves? I would love to hear your thoughts!