Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, October 17, 2005

Geek Love

"When your mama was the 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 her, hypnotized with longing. ‘Spread your lips, sweet Lil,’ they’d cluck, ‘and show us your choppers!’"

Those are the opening sentences of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. How could I not love a book that begins like that? "Spread your lips, sweet Lil." Does it get anymore Freudian than that, with the castrating choppers within? Okay, I’m probably pushing the Freudian bit here since the chickens are hens, but I love this book.

Two stories run through Geek Love. Both of them center around the albino dwarf Olympia Binewski, daughter of Al and Lil Binewski, proprietors of Binewski’s Carnival Fabulon. The main story, told in flashback, is that of the Fabulon. It’s your basic monster tale. Al and Lil go to fooling around where they shouldn’t and end up creating a physical and moral monster.

The fooling around that I’m referring to is the decision to breed their own freak show. They do this by "experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes" during Lil’s pregnancies. As a result she gives birth to four freaks. Besides Olympia herself, there’s Arturo, the oldest, who has flippers where he should have arms and legs; Elly and Iphy, the Siamese twins who are joined at the hip; and, Chick who has the power of telekinesis. Arturo is the monster of the story and his actions end up destroying all of the Binewskis but Olympia.

The second is a contemporary story of redemption in which Olympia saves her one daughter, who is normal but for a pronounced, vestigial tail. I don’t want to say anymore than that, lest I ruin the story for those of you who might want to read the book, though I suspect that Dunn included this second story to keep the book from being too grim. However, it works and it fits in seamlessly with the other tale.

The book might be a bit much for some people since it is largely a grim story with a somewhat perverse sensibility. However, Katherine Dunn is a hell of a writer and I recommend it to everyone for that reason, if for no other. In places, her prose seems a bit labored, as though she worked it over too much but, in general, it is simple, clean and effective, not to mention descriptive and imaginative.

Dunn herself seems to be a kind of odd duck. Geek Love first appeared in 1989 and she hasn’t published another novel since. She has been a boxing writer for AP, which is certainly unusual, particularly that she started some twenty years ago. She wrote an introduction for a book entitled Freaksin the early Eighties. It was published by Pocket Books, but they thought better of it and pulled the title after a month. She has also written a foreword for a book called Freak Like Me. Even stranger, she wrote the introduction to Death Scenes, which was published in 1995. It’s a book of Los Angeles homicide scene photographs from the 1920's through the 1950's, some of which are supposedly quite disturbing. It’s not a book that I would care to peruse.

I have been told that I have a strange and often perverse imagination, but Katherine Dunn has me beat by a good bit. I wouldn’t want to live with what she seems to have going on in her head.


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