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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Review: “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

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I am sure that any reader of this post with the slightest interest in the literary world will no doubt have come across Paula Hawkins’s debut psychological thriller The Girl on the Train. Widely lauded as 2015’s Gone Girl, the novel shot straight to number one on the UK best-seller list before also taking its place at the top of the US list too, where it has perched proudly now for three weeks. After reading generally favourable reviews in respected national publications, I felt that the buzz was too loud to be ignored and caved into buying the book.

 

For the most part, the novel is told in the first person from the perspective of Rachel, a thirty-four-year-old London commuter who, during her daily trip into the capital, has become fixated on the inhabitants of a house where the train routinely stops due to a faulty signal. This house, which coincidentally sits a few doors down from Rachel’s former home shared blissfully with her ex-boyfriend Tom, belongs to a couple she calls Jason and Jess, and Rachel envisions their happy life together while internally yearning for her former relationship with Tom. The wishful image she creates of Jason and Jess is obsessive and completely weird, and when she discovers in the newspaper that ‘Jess’, in reality called Megan, has gone missing, she sees this as an opportunity to become embroiled in their supposedly happy lives.

 

The other crucial thing about Rachel is that she is a pitiful, seemingly helpless alcoholic who is prone to blackouts and drunk-dialling her ex, who appears to be currently living a happy family life with his new partner, Anna. In fact, in her disconcerting drunken states Rachel has even made visits to Tom and Anna’s home, on one occasion trying to kidnap their young child. On the morning after Megan has gone missing, Rachel has been on one of her benders and wakes to find herself covered in blood, with a blow to the head and fragmented memories of being near her old home the previous night. Although Rachel’s perspective dominates, the story is told from the collective interlinking female voices of Rachel, Anna and Megan, and Hawkins very skilfully draws out the plot, revealing snippets of information slowly, tactfully and steadily notching up the levels of intrigue and suspense as the story unfurls.

 

The Girl on the Train is founded on a strong central conceit; the novel’s plot is rich with avenues for Hawkins to explore, mainly because the majority, if not all, of the characters have psychological problems of some sort. I enjoyed the rotation of female perspectives and voices, and I would like to read more novels which use this sort of narrative structure and provide an overriding female perspective on stories. This would be an interesting way to tackle historical fiction, for example, and probably most other genres. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I was rather disappointed by the novel and felt it did not live up to the potential that is so prominent when we read the book’s blurb. First of all, although undoubtedly well-written and fluid, I felt that the style was not up to much, that there are still sections that could be polished and that the novel still has potential to be better. There were sections that felt as though they might have been taken from somebody’s social media posts, and although told in a distinctly modern first person voice, it at times stepped over a line that made me feel slightly uncomfortable and made me cringe. For example, this section in which Rachel revels in some ‘cheeky’ Friday night drinkey-poos:

 

 “I take another sip, and another; the can’s already half empty but it’s OK, I have three more in the plastic bag at my feet. It’s Friday, so I don’t have to feel guilty about drinking on the train. TGIF. The fun starts  here.

It’s going to be a lovely weekend, that’s what they’re telling us. Beautiful sunshine, cloudless skies…” (p.8)

 

In other instances, I felt that the writing could be refined and that it was rather repetitive. Here, for example:

 

“There’s a faulty signal on the line, about halfway through my journey. I assume it must be faulty, in any case, because it’s almost just red; we stop there most days, sometimes for just a few seconds, sometimes for minutes on end. If I sit in carriage D, which I usually do, and the train stops at this signal, which it almost always does, I have a perfect view into my favourite trackside house: number fifteen…” (p.9).

 

The highlighted phrase here seems completely redundant as the exact same idea is expressed in just the previous sentence. Maybe this is because Hawkins is seeking a natural, fluid, colloquial style that mimics the natural repetition of speech, but I came across this sort of repetition a few times and felt that it was rather sloppy more than a carefully constructed narrative style.

 

Another element that disappointed was the characters. A good novel told in the first person, I think, evokes some empathy in the reader towards the protagonist so that you can go on a journey with the character, appreciate what he/she is going through, their motives, and so on. It doesn’t matter, of course, whether the character is supposed to be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ character, but the reader should be able to forge some sort of understanding with the central character/s and become engaged with his/her point of view. With The Girl on the Train I simply found Rachel to be self-pitying, irritating, and tragically unrelatable. For the most part, I was just wondering what on earth she was doing, what her motives were, and I found it mostly impossible to empathise with her and her actions. When reading about Megan’s case in the newspapers for example, Rachel reads about “…one Rajesh Gujral, who says that Megan is ‘a wonderful woman, sharp, funny and beautiful, an intensely private person with a warm heart’” and swiftly comes to the conclusion that “[it] sounds to me like Rajesh has got a crush [on Megan]” (p.74). Here Rachel sounds like a teenage girl, making swift assumptions (of murder, no less!) based on shallow comments gleaned in a newspaper. It is moments like this when we might conclude that we are gaining access to Rachel’s delusional and docile mind; however, at other times, Rachel seems to be a completely rational and logical thinker. When informing the reader about having created an imaginary vision of ‘Jess and Jason’, for example, Rachel is able to openly admit her understanding that it is merely a figure of her imagination:

 

“I can’t really see her, of course. I don’t know if she paints, or whether Jason has a great laugh, or whether Jess has beautiful cheekbones. I can’t see her bone structure from here and I’ve never heard Jason’s voice. I’ve never seen them up close, they didn’t live at that house when I lived down the road…” (p.13).

 

Although Hawkins has certainly created a rich character full of inward complexities and problems, I feel that the character isn’t believable, and this is partially due to the inconsistencies in Rachel’s narrative voice, and the difficulty of trying to empathise with such an unpredictable and far-fetched character.

 

This criticism also extends to characters other than Rachel. I found all three of the main female characters to be unrelatable, strange and, frankly, annoying. This is not surprising, as I also thought the women’s voices were not really distinguished from one another and so Rachel, Anna and Megan sounded pretty much the same to my ear. Megan, for example, has that strike of a teenage girl associated with Rachel, which seeps out here:

 

“A tiding of magpies. One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told.

I’ve got a few of those.

Scott is away, on a course somewhere…”(p.53).

 

What is the use of the middle paragraph jere? We know she’s got secrets; she has just been confiding them to us! Later, too, Megan discusses getting revenge on a lover in the vindictive, jealous spirit that is a key element of Rachel’s personality:

 

“I kissed him on the mouth, I bit his lower lip as hard as I could; I could taste his blood in my mouth. He pushed me away.

I plotted revenge on my way home. I was thinking of all the things I could do to him. I could get him fired, or worse.” (p. 113).

 

In addition to the female characters, I also felt that Tom and Scott, the two principal male figures, were not flesh out and as memorable as they may have been. Tom—arguably the novel’s most interesting character—remains closed, deceptive and intriguing from the start, but then at the novel’s very end, when he is in a position of complete power, for some reason he decides to reveal all to Rachel and Anna. Why would he do this? I feel that he wouldn’t, and the only reason this does happen is to clarify events for the reader.

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On the whole then, I was disappointed that The Girl on the Train didn’t live up to the hope promised by the intriguing central conceit. Although in terms of plot and pacing the novel is carefully and skilfully constructed, I feel that it disappoints in terms of style, character and narrative voice. Unfortunately, The Girl on the Train seems to me a novel that has been exalted to literary prominence on the back of a very good blurb and an even better marketing campaign. I’m sure the comparisons to Gone Girl have excited many a person into purchasing the book, but it does not live up to that comparison and I can’t imagine the phenomenon surrounding the book to last beyond the coming months.

 

Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train was published by Transworld and can be found here. Thank you for reading, and I would love to hear what you thought of the novel, if you agree/disagree with my opinions, or anything else in the comments below.