Friday, 10 April 2009

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn

Read: January 2008

A more tender-hearted novel you will not read this year. Despite its freak show characters and setting, Geek Love works because at no point is it sick, grotesque, tasteless or glibly shocking. Katherine Dunn’s talent is in making this very remarkable story feel like the most natural thing in the world. And it is. Because Geek Love is a novel about families, and individuals within families, and the crazy world which exists outside them.

Narrated by Olympia, a bald, hunchback, albino, dwarf, Geek Love tells the story of the Binewski family, and their rise to fame. And as with all great stories, it begins at the beginning, with how it all began.

“'When your mama was a geek, my dreamlets’, Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around, hypnotised with longing.”

But Al and Lil Binewski have grander plans than circus geeking for their Binewski Fabulon circus troupe. Together they hit upon the idea of breeding their own freak show. So during each pregnancy Lil guzzles drugs and pesticides, douses herself in radiation, all in the hope of producing freaks compelling and original enough to keep the circus afloat. Giving new meaning to the term ‘nuclear family,’ Lil gives birth to 5 living children, each fantastic in their own unique way. First out comes the limbless Arturo, Aqua Boy, megalomaniac, entertainer, preacher and eventually, cult leader. He is followed by the musically talented Siamese twins Electra and Iphigenia, beautiful and alluring and each as individual as they are united. The Lizard Girl comes third, green tinted and with one tail shaped leg but she dies suddenly and mysteriously aged 2. And then there is Olympia, unremarkable, unprofitable, who sleeps under the sink. Finally comes Fortunato, almost rejected for his apparent normality, he turns out to possess strange telekinetic powers and an angelic temperament. Led by this motley crew of performers, the circus grows beyond all recognition, raking in audiences in ever greater numbers.

But as within any family there are internal tensions, people pulling in opposite directions, and Arturo will not quit until the whole family is subjected to his twisted, power-crazed ways.

With a constantly evolving plot, complex and engaging characters and easily readable style, Geek Love is a book to become thoroughly engrossed in. The characters are as fabulously drawn as any I have ever read, equal even to those in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. They each inhabit their own skin and minds completely, think independently and with the diversity of a real mind. You can almost picture their bodies in the shape of the words, living, breathing, dreaming, loving, hating. From the cold-hearted, vindictive sneer of Arturo to the loving honesty of Fortunato, the independent personalities of the twins and the unrequited love of Olympia, it is impossible not to love them all. Love them because in each of them lies that spark of recognisable complex humanity that is so rarely found in literature. Most characters in novels act as personified ideas, or plot developers. It is rare to find a family whose entire dynamic just exists, naturally and without pretence. And it is all the more remarkable since the characters in question are, physically at least, far from the norm.

The whole basis of Geek Love is the inversion of society’s view of physical perfection. Despite their external differences the Binewski children do not grow up shunted, embarrassed or gawked at. They are treasured, worshipped, made special by their different forms. Al refers to them as his ‘rose garden’ his little ‘dreamlets’. They look down upon the ‘norms,’ pity all those whose bodies are unremarkable and whose lives are so much harder because of it. Indeed, their hierarchy is based upon the scale of abnormality, a scale in which Olympia is considered the lowest and Arturo the highest form of creation.

But when a large and perpetually depressed lady in the audience professes the wish to be “just like” Arturo, a cult is born. The philosophy behind it all is brilliantly thought out, often profound, and ultimately fascinating. In Arturism, Katherine Dunn offers an original solution to the existential emptiness of human life. By hacking away at their own limbs, those devoted Arturans seek some form of almost subhuman innocence. They seek to escape the pain of humanity through exterior abnormality, with Arturo as their example and leader. Others hope to enhance their minds by disfiguring their bodies. But as Arturo slowly gains complete dominance over the family and the circus, Olympia hatches a plan to create something for herself, something not even Arturo can control.

Geek Love
doesn’t warn against judging character by its outside shape and skin. It is not as simple as that. Rather it gets under that skin, into the life and mindset of its characters, rejecting the very notion of physical normality. Dunn conceives of every character trait and reaction to life possible, and because they are all ultimately more human than any of us, their story is one everyone can relate to in some way. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have each publicly stated they would like to make a movie version of Geek Love so read it now, before it becomes literatures worst kept secret.

8.5 out of 10

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