It must have been pure coincidence that I won Geek Love by Katherine Dunn from softdrink at Fizzy Thoughts, because of all the books in the world, we ended up picking it for our book club. And if I told you the premise of the book, you’d be all, WTF*? You picked THAT? So just lay that thought aside and hear me out.
Geek Love is about the Binewski family, Aloysius and his wife, Lillian (Lil for short), who decided to create their own “freak show” or circus act by “experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes” while Lil was pregnant. Their innovations netted them five children: Arturo, whose hands and feet were flippers that grew right out of his body since he had no arms and no legs…it’s no stretch that his nickname was Aqua Boy; then there was the Siamese twins, Electra and Iphigenia, joined at the waist, with separate torsos but sharing one set of hips and legs, who were beautiful and did piano duets; Olympia (Oly), the narrator, is a hunchback albino dwarf who isn’t quite freakish enough for the family she’s born into, so instead of having her own show, she sells tickets to shows her siblings put on; and finally, there’s Forunato, nicknamed Chick, who appeared normal at birth, causing his parents to consider giving him up to a “normal” family, until they found out he was telekinetic.
All that information just gets you going into the story. Right away you find out that Oly has a child that she gave up for adoption but is living in the same house with, both of them renting separate rooms. Oly is remembering her history, all the while trying to help her daughter without revealing that she’s her mother. As Oly reveals more and more of her family’s dynamics, you find out just how dysfunctional her family was as her parents cede more and more control to her egomaniacal brother, Arturo.
When you peel back all the freakish layers the author has piled on, at the heart of the story are very basic themes: sibling rivalry, love (motherly love, love towards your siblings, etc), the desire to fit in coupled with the desire to be unique, etc.
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 in this spectrum at one time or another. Watching Arty pine for Iphy, however, I 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.
We had what I thought was a really good discussion over this book at the book club meeting. Unfortunately, even though there were people who didn’t care for the book, they didn’t really have a reason other than being unable to get past all the freakishness. If you can suspend disbelief (because really. Aqua Boy?) and just let the story be, then there’s so much there to think about!
I pointed out how similar Arturo and Kevin from We Need to Talk About Kevin were. Both of them were psychotic and had an uncanny ability to charm those around them. Last year we read Stones From the River, which is about a German dwarf, and Geek Love has Oly, also a dwarf.
What I also found fascinating was how Oly, while proud to be different, proud to be a freak, was at the same time constantly searching for acceptance and a sense of belonging. Being unique does not preclude someone from wanting to fit in.
I thought the author’s writing was excellent. She has the kind of writing that will make you think it’s effortless. The writing isn’t pretentious, but I wouldn’t say its simple, either. Katherine Dunn deftly weaves an intricate family story that keeps the reader engaged and fascinated.
Rating: 92 out of 100
GUESS WHO’LL BE AT THE LA TIMES FESTIVAL OF BOOKS??? I’m so stoked because I’m hoping she’ll talk about the novel she’s currently working on, The Cut Man.
*WTF translates, in my head, to what the frack. Or what the fudgesicle. Or what the eff.