In light of my forthcoming post on Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, I’d like to reblog an older post I had written about Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.
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.
– Arturo Binewski.
Geek Love is so brilliant, so wonderful, that I almost urge you, if you have not read it, not to read on. This is your official Spoiler Alert.
“This thing of darkness I Acknowledge mine.” Prospero, The Tempest 5.1.275-6, the epigraph to Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.
Everyone has secret desires, lusts, revulsions, curiosities. Everyone has demons and dragons. No one is as isolated as they think, nor are they as connected as they want. No one can escape their bodies.
Everybody poops. Everybody dies.
To each their own.
Grotesque realism is all about this kind of materialist introspection, it’s about degradation, “the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of the earth and body in their indissoluble unity.” (Bakhtin) Powerful images of the humans–often larger or deformed in some way, though not necessarily so–eating, drinking, fucking, menstruating, micturating, and defecating.
“The material bodily principle in grotesque realism is offered in its all-popular festive and utopian aspect. The comic, social, and bodily elements are given here as an indivisible whole. And this whole is gay and gracious.” Bakhtin.
Mikhail Bakhtin developed his theory in his study of Rabelais. Bakhtin thinks that in order to understand Rabelais, one must reconstruct their aesthetic and ideological perceptions by entering and elevating the bawdy, chaotic world of folk humor, in other words, toilet humor. This subversion and liberation has its roots in the carnival, where social hierarchies are overturned, where the fool is wise, and a king is no better than a beggar. Opposites comingle, everyone is included.
The carnivalesque is a joyous event. Festive and utopian.
“Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all people. While the carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time, life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal sprit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part.” Bakhtin.
Ideally, it is vividly felt as an escape from the usual official way of life.
But what if the carnival is your official way of life?
The Binewski’s live behind the glitz, behind the flashing lights. They work hard to be festive, to create gaiety and illusions of hope. To them, the sacred occasion of carnivalesque, the light poetic humor that serves as a beacon from the unbearable weight of drab everyday existence, is itself profane and barren, just like everything else.
The happiness that Oly has in it is the happiness she has in her family, in her love.
“A carnival in daylight is an unfinished beast, anyway. Rain makes it a ghost. The wheezing music from the empty, motionless rides in a soggy, rained-out afternoon midway always hit my chest with a sweet ache. The colored dance of lights in the seeping air flashed the puddles in the sawdust with an oily glamour.” Olympia Binewski.
You can hear the nostalgic ache in her voice contrasted with the decay in her language.
Geek Love opens with Aloysuis Binewski and Lilian Hinchcliff Binewski reminiscing about the times before the children, the day that she decided to geek for him, meaning, she would fling herself into the pit and bite the heads off of chickens. After they were married, to alight the Fabulon circus that Al had inherited, they hatched a plan to breed a family of bona fide freaks. Lil ingests illegal and prescription pills, amphetamines, insecticides, and radioisotopes. She first gives birth to Arturo the Aqua Boy, who has flippers for limbs, then Electra and Iphigenia, the conjoined twins, followed by Olympia, the hunchback albino dwarf, and then Fortunato, a telekinetic, whose appearance is depressingly normal. There were others, who didn’t make it for various, and obvious reasons, who are now floating in jars on display for a moderate price. “Born from normal parents!”
Polishing her late siblings is only one of Oly’s jobs at the Fabulon. She is the useless child, the unmarketable child, but she is also our narrator. The novel oscillates from her childhood on the road, a life lived entirely for Arty, to now, a life lived entirely for her mother and daughter. Though they each know her, as they both live in the same apartment complex as her, neither has any idea of their relation to her.
The novel predominantly takes place at the Fabulon when Oly was a child. This is her story, the Binewski’s story, archived, for her daughter, Miranda.
“In grotesque realism, therefore, the bodily element is deeply positive. It is presented not in a private, egotistic form, severed from the other spheres of life, but as something universal, representing all people.” Bakhtin.
The children’s deformities are not universal, they are unique. The children are proud of their appearance and proud of their family. They are not mere representations to illustrate some satirical truth about Western culture, they each have individual personalities, egos, and desires. They are characters, they have dreams, fears; they love.
The Binewski’s are a traditional nuclear family, with Papa Aloysuis manning the helm, but as soon as Al’s mind shows its first crack the line of power begins to transfer over to his Machiavellian firstborn.
“The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are continually growing and renewed. This is why all that is bodily becomes grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable.” Bakhtin.
As opposed to Arty’s body taking on these qualities, his ego is grandiose, exaggerated, and immeasurable. Stalinist yet Capitalistic. Smothering, exiling anyone who stands in his way, Arty’s act soon bourgeons into a self-help act, a personified greeting card. He becomes a sort of soothsayer with an inflated sense of superiority. An evangelist. A charlatan.
“Arty said, ‘We have this advantage, that the norms expect us to be wise. Even a rat’s-ass dwarf got credit for terrible canniness disguised in his foolery. Freaks are like owls, mythed into blinking, bloodless objectivity. The norms figure our contact with their brand of life is shaky. They see us as cut off from temptation and pettiness. Even our hate is grand by their feeble lights. And the more deformed we are, the higher our supposed sanctity.’ ” Olympia Binewski.
He then takes this idea and turns it into a religion. Arturism.
“What Arty wanted the crowds to hear was that they were all hormone-driven insects and probably deserved to be miserable but that he, the Aqua Boy, could really feel for them because he was in much better shape. That’s what it sounded like to me, but the customers must have been hearing something different because they gobbled it up and seemed to enjoy feeling sorry for themselves. You might figure a mood like that would be bad for the carnival business but it worked the opposite way. The crowd streaming out from Arty’s act would plunge deeper into the midway than all the rest, as though cantankerously determined to treat themselves to the joys of junk food and simp twisters to make up for the misery that had just been revealed to them.” Olympia Binewski.
When this kind of megalomania is taken to its logical conclusion, Arturism has thousands of people paying thousands of dollars, leaving their families, everything behind, to follow the carnival, and amputate their limbs one by one. The Admitted wait on the more advanced, and all meditate on the slogan: Peace, Isolation, Purity. They give Arty monikers like His Armlessness.
While Arturism functions like a religion, there is no mention of god or gods (except maybe His Limblessness), and there is no claim to any afterlife. The cult represents itself as offering earthly sanctuary from the aggravations of life. “Arturo knows All Pain, All Shame, and the Remedy!”
Generally, according to Bakhtin, when the grotesque exaggeration is bodily, the leading themes are fertility, growth, and a teeming abundance, but, as we see, the Fabulon’s motto is about deletion, about disappearing, minimizing the physical self, and what that self can do, in order to feel whole, pure, and at ease.
Ironically, when the ultimate goal of Aturism is reached, a lobotomized head sitting atop a torso, one is completely dependent on the help of others, on the more recently Admitted. Given Arty’s complete success manipulating, it’s easy to forget how dependent he is on Oly how much he needs her to be his hands, to be his extra eyes and ears. She does everything for him. After he finds out she’s pregnant, it’s a startling moment, to watch him feebly attempt to attack her with a plunger as the handle keeps slipping from his flipper.
“I stared through my safe green lenses at Arty, gibbering with frustration in his chair because he couldn’t keep a grip on the stick with his flipper even though his belly rolled in crevices of muscle, though he could lift a hundred and fifty pounds with his neck, he still couldn’t hold the stick to hurt me when he needed to.” Olympia Binewski.
Though Oly doesn’t buy into Arturism, she truly loves Arty, to a point beyond masochism, venturing into more sinister realms, and on the one hand, it’s easy to deduce that she craves a normal life with Arty and baby, and each of them would bust at the seams with incestuous happiness, but that life is an impossibility, for if Arty were normal, if Arty returned her love, he wouldn’t be Arty, he wouldn’t be the one she loves.
“Life for me was not like the songs the redheads played. It wasn’t the electric clutch I had seen ten million times in the midway–the toreador girls pumping flags until those bulging-crotched tractor drivers were strung as tight as banjo wire, glinting in the sun. It wasn’t for me, the stammering hilarity of Papa and Lil, or even the helpless, dribbling lust of the Bag Man rocked by the sight of the twins. I have certainly mourned for myself. I have wallowed in grief for the lonesome, deliberate seep of my love into the air like the smell of uneaten popcorn greening to rubbery staleness. In the end I would always pull up with a sense of glory, that loving is the strong side. It’s feeble to be an object. What’s the point of being loved in return, I’d ask myself. To warm my spine in the dark? To change the face in my mirror every morning? It was none of Arty’s business that I loved him. It was my secret ace, like a bluebird tattooed under pubic hair or a ruby tucked up my ass.
Understand, daughter, that the only reason for your existing was as a tribute to your uncle-father. You were meant to love him. I planned to teach you how to serve him and adore him. You would be his monument and his fortress against mortality.
Forgive me. As soon as you arrived I realized that you were worth more than that.” Olympia Binewski.
Her language is so desperate, so wracked with pain that it’s hard not to be moved by this passage, by her immense yearning to love again. With Arty dead, and her mother and Miranda unaware of her identity, she loves in secret, incognito. She follows both of them, protects them from afar. Miranda doesn’t need as much immediate help as Lil, but she is in danger of becoming a full-fledged norm.
Miranda works at a strip club, but a kind of strip club for very particular fetishes, each of the girls there has a little something extraordinary. Miranda has a tail, which drive a great deal of men wild. At work one night she is approached by Miss Lick, who has the eccentric hobby of locating down and out pretty girls and disfiguring them so that they become more than some man’s wife, or, obversely, locating freaks and paying them to become normal. She has offered Miranda a small fortune to remove her tail. This, of course, outrages Oly, and instead of spilling everything to Miranda, explaining why her tail is so important, she decides to befriend and spy on Miss Lick.
“Miss Lick’s purpose is to liberate women who are liable to be exploited by male hungers. These exploitable women are, in Miss Lick’s view, the pretty ones. She feels great pity for them… If all these pretty women could shed the traits that made men want them (their prettiness) then they would no longer depend on their own exploitability but would use their talents and intelligence to become powerful. 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.” Olympia Binewski.
I have heard and I have read that this contemporary story isn’t as interesting as life at the Fabulon, but I do care to differ. It’s an integral part of the thematic whole. Geek Love champions the unique and freaky, the unconventional and the nonconformist, the ugly and deformed. It’s not that all our souls are deformed and our bodies long to reflect our inner ugly, nor is it that our bodies weigh us down, and that in order to be free we must reduce ourselves to drained, dependent nubs, utter impuissance. This is a message of girl power. One that questions what it exactly means to be normal. To have a normal family life. To experience love normally.
And while “normal” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, it’s an indefinable word, it’s a word that relies on an ever-changing society. Basically, it’s a word that only means “majority.”
“ ‘You are so lucky,’ [Miss Lick] said that night. ‘What fools might consider a handicap is actually an enormous gift. What you’ve accomplished with your voice might never have been possible if you’d been normal.’ ” Olympia Binewski.
This certainly isn’t what Bakhtin had in mind for the carnivalesque. This isn’t a jolly Momento mori reminding us that we are our bodies and we will decay, this isn’t another womb/tomb tale. Through Oly’s strange appearance and her unorthodox upbringing, we learn about her existential languor. In the end, I don’t think Oly is a sad character, or a misunderstood character. She is honest, strong, fiercely loyal, and extremely lovable.
In short, I loved every second of this book.
(And there’s so, so much more I didn’t say.)