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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“The World Was Rearranging Itself Around Me While I Processed Words from a Liquid-Crystal Display”: Ben Lerner’s “10:04”

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Since its publication in September 2014, New York-based writer Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, has drawn praise from all corners of the publishing world and was recently announced on the shortlist for the prestigious Folio Prize 2015. As far as I can tell, the book seemed to steamroll onto the British literary scene and the ubiquitous intelligent reviews lauding 10:04 as this year’s great novel saw it climb speedily up my reading list.

Having read the book, I feel that a good place to start for those who haven’t seen it is Robert Zemeckis’s 1985 time travelling Back to the Future. It is from here that Lerner’s novel takes its name (10:04 is the moment that lightning strikes the bell tower that initiates the protagonist’s voyage through time and space), and Lerner seems to concern himself and reinvent the themes of that film in what is a distinctly twenty-first century novel. The process of time, the way the past introduces the present and the present informs the future, man’s ability to actively change the future with actions in the present are all central ideas of the novel. While somewhat maintaining the playfulness of Zemecki’s film with a narrator who is laugh-out-loud funny, wry and forthright, I found the novel to simultaneously be extremely immediate, considering personal and international issues.

On the whole, it is testing to try to sum up the novel in a review such as this. This is primarily due to the way moments, scenes and time itself streams through the narrative and the overlaying and constant interchanging of ideas and themes. Moments seem to simply knock together like a train of dominoes, following each other seamlessly, and the sense of worldly time is loose at best. On the whole, the book centres on a writer who has received an offer of a ‘“strong six figure” advance’ from a publisher following the success of a short story published in The New Yorker and is grappling with a number of issues and decisions that will all heavily inform his future. The novel itself for one, but then also the decision of whether he will donate his sperm to his best friend, Alex, who yearns for a child, and then his recent diagnosis of Marfan syndrome which could lead to the rupturing of a major artery, and death, at virtually any moment. The decision regarding the donation of his sperm and fatherhood also weighs heavily on his bit-part relationship with Alena, who is constructing a new form of art gallery that uses only ‘worthless art’—that is art that has been damaged in some way or other and has been declared ‘worthless’ by the authorities, even though the damage may be minor. Masterfully written, Lerner’s prose echoes that of Joyce in its looseness and fluidity but also great experimentalist writers such as David Foster Wallace in his diction which is expansive, rich and urges you to the dictionary. Like his prose, the narratives and ideas that intertwine to form 10:04 are engrossing in their own right, intriguing, and deeply thought-provoking. Lerner doesn’t restrict himself to discussing themes one by one in great deal, but instead he simultaneously discusses several themes and topics as they ebb and flow in their multifarious forms through the duration of the novel.

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10:04 is a highly intelligent, experimental and contemplative book that looks at the way we use language and, I think, toys with the form on the novel and its contents; yet what I most enjoyed about the book was its effervescent comedy which is always bubbling away at the surface. The narrator is rather blunt, forthright and a hilarious observer. Try, for example, this description of a simple trip to a coffee shop where he is trying to acknowledge an awkward smile from a neighbour:

“His problem was that the coffee required two hands, or at least he had taken it with two hands, one on cup and one on saucer, so as not to spill the coffee or upset foam; he couldn’t return her wave. He felt himself scowling at this situation, realizing too late she’d think he was scowling at her.” p.47

There wry observations and descriptions are commonplace in the book, a large number of which spill over into the realm of satire which Lerner uses to poke fun at a plethora of contemporary issues. He is not solely poking fun, however, and Lerner offers serious reflection on the apparent absurdity of modern life. The modern phenomena of receiving all our news via smartphones and the internet, for example:

“As I read I experienced what was becoming a familiar sensation: the world was rearranging itself around me while I processed words from a liquid-crystal display. So much of the most important personal news I’d received in the last several years had come to me by smartphone while I was abroad in the city that I could not plot on a map, could represent spatially, the major events, such as they were, of my early thirties…” p.26

Or the strange presence of racial and social discrimination which still ostensibly exists in our times today despite our apparent efforts to try and eradicate it:

“Eventually I reached the park and walked into it only far enough to find a bench and sit down and watch the nannies, all of whom were black or brown, push around white kids in expensive strollers…” p.66

On top of this, Lerner touches on parenthood in the age of technological advancement, the forthcoming effects of global warming on cityscapes, the role of the arts in a society seemingly in meltdown, and more. There is no doubt in my mind that is book is a modern masterpiece; but what I felt is Ben Lerner’s greatest achievement with 10:04 is his blending of the high and the low, the serious and the playful, satire, humour and social critique in one great big bubbling pot. It bites, but calmly. It addresses urgent social issues without forcibly shoving them in your face and pointing fingers. It has the ability to open eyes, to educate, while being undoubtedly entertaining and amusing all the while. I would urge anyone with a love of language and an interest in the form of the novel to give this (short!) novel a read and I would love to hear how you found 10:04. Thanks for reading!

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