Monday, March 03, 2008

weekend reading: Geek Love

We had a very long weekend. I can't even begin to tell you everything we did. There were excessive amounts of tai chi, moving heavy things, laundry, and yard work.

In-between, there was nothing much to do but collapse. I had picked up a copy of Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn, which somebody left laying around the lending library at work. It's the kind of book that, if you don't immediately recoil from the subject matter, sinks its teeth in your upper lip and bulldogs you to the ground.

I had heard of the book, seen a couple of previews. It's about a circus family. The parents, Lil and Al, deliberately set out to turn their offspring into freaks, by feeding Lil drugs and radiation during her pregnancies. They succeed, producing a son with no limbs, only flippers; a pair of beautiful conjoined-twin daughters; and a hunchbacked albino dwarf--the youngest daughter, Oly, who is also the narrator. Oly is considered the least interesting of the children, ergo she's consigned to servitude of the others. You read that much on the back of the book, but that's only the hook, the barker's cry--you think this is going to be an exploitative exploration of what it's like to be a freak, but since the narrator sees freakiness as normal, you are quickly forced into a realignment of your perceptions. And no sooner does that happen than you're pushed out of the cozy family scenerio into the big bad world of norms who want to crush and exploit, and realize that being born a freak into a family of freaks is not what this story is about at all. That was merely a coincidence.

The real meat of the story comes from the megalomaniacal ambition, and psychotic bitterness, of the brother: Arturo the Aqua-Boy, who builds his simple aquatic freak act into a cult, while maintaining iron-fisted control over the rest of his family. And that stuff, shocking and meaty as it is, is only the backstory to Oly's grown-up narration and her mission to protect the last of her family. The antagonist she meets as an adult is even more grotesque and pitiable than anything she saw on the midway growing up.

Geek Love is disturbing, no doubt about it. There's self-mutilation, voyeurism, sex, drug use, allusions of incest, and the most twisted kind of emotional abuse, but all of it couched in a world that makes these things necessary and appropriate. I think in some ways, the freak-factor that draws crowds to the carnival tents is the same thing that kept me reading this book--at least for the first couple of chapters. But very quickly I was drawn into the plot of the thing. Dunn has a terrific sleight-of-hand with suspense and plot. By the time you're accepting the freakish as normal via Oly's eyes, Dunn has slyly upped the ante in terms of emotional payoff. She alludes to dangerous things that are going to happen, but then they don't happen the way you expect. Or, in the best thriller-style, things are going along fine and then she sucker-punches you.

It is very, very rare these days for me to read a book I can't predict. Dunn keeps you so distracted with all the bizarre images and dizzying moral puzzles that you never notice how cleverly she's redirecting your attention away from the plot. Skillful use of foreshadowing and withholding information also keep you guessing--although it might be more accurate to say you don't have time to guess; you're holding your breath, craning your neck, sure in your bones that someone is going to plummet to their death but you don't know who it will be.

But probably the most impressive to me, as a writer, are the ways in which these well-sculpted story elements reflect the tricks of the freak-show trade: the promise of thrills, the buildup of suspense, the redirection of attention. I know I notice them because I have learned to think in these terms, and tend describe writing in terms of a magic act anyway, but the structuring is too firm and sure-footed for that to be an accident on the author's part, or me imposing scholarship on the text. For instance, each chapter has a sub-title of its own, and very well-written subtitles they are: they tell you the truth, but not the whole truth, and in many cases the truth is more awful (and thrilling) than what you were expecting. Then there are passages when Arty is lecturing on the nature of people's willingness to fool themselves, and how to capitalize on that tendency, that could be the author talking about her own work. The whole book is a lovely mobius strip, subject matter and structure complimentary and complementary.

It's been a while since I got so hooked into a story that I keep sneaking back to it when I should be doing other things, like listening to my sifu or helping my husband watch for the exit sign while he's driving in a strange city. Geek Love kept me creeping back to it, much like Oly slinking around the fringes of her family's circus, or the "norm" fans who crept into the private quarters of the freak performers they idolized, after hours in the dark.

Suffice to say, I am in awe of this book. I'm afraid to even look up the author's other works, because I can't imagine her being able to follow up this act. I will probably study this extensively, and take inspiration from it, but the danger is that I will only dash off a pale imitation. It will have to compost for a good long while.


Joy Marchand said...

Hey, that's my favorite book!

Holly said...

Truly now? Your favorite?

Somehow that doesn't surprise me. ;-)

Anonymous said...

This book puts me in mind of two novels involving rather macabre protagonists. One is "Johnny Got His Gun" by Dalton Trumbo, published in the late thirties. The lead character is an American soldier horribly disfigured by the Great War. His face was blown off, leaving him bereft of every sense but touch, and little enough of that, since both arms and legs have been amputated as well. It's been donkey's years since I read it, but I was amazed at Trumbo's ability to get into the mind of such a person. It's a heartbreaking story, an anti-war tale on a par with "All Quiet on the Western Front."

The second novel is Victor Hugo's "The Man Who Laughs," written in 1869. Gwynplaine, the hero, was disfigured as a child for the carnival trade. The author of the book you review here may have taken inspiration from this tale.

Holly said...

"The author of the book you review here may have taken inspiration from this tale."

I would hesitate to claim that without having read both. It's a pet peeve of mine when some critic says "Oh, they ripped that off from so-and-so," because only the artist really knows what she's read or heard. Often, separate artists come up with very similar products in the same era; that's because we all have the same cultural resources to draw upon.

Besides, in my experience, inspiration comes from sources which, in their raw form, seem completely unrelated to the synthesized end product. For instance, I found inspiration for "Printer's Devil" in a Stephen King short story, in a ghost story I read as a child, from the real-life story of Lizzie Borden, and from a techno-pop freak song about a girl getting off on murder at a birthday party. But the finished product will probably not resemble any of those, unless I decide to do an homage scene to "The Mangler."

I would hope, that in doing her research for the book, Dunn familiarized herself with earlier works that touched on similiar topics and settings, which might include "The Man Who Laughed," at least in a superficial way. But that doesn't mean her book is a direct descendent, or even related by marriage.

If I indulge in speculation, I will say that Geek Love feels like a book that was built from the inside-out, and by that I mean it's very character-driven. She probably started with some deformed characters, and speculated on the nature of normal-inside/normal-outside, which is one of the major themes of the book. Then she needed a setting in which her megalomanical freak could make his freakiness seem like an asset, and settled on the microcosm of the circus.

But this isn't the first time such themes have been explored in storytelling, anyway. The movie "Freaks" by Tod Browning is probably the best-known example, but there is also "The Bride" starring Sting and Jennifer Beals. I've even been planning a circus-themed installment for Trace--note the references to Mereck working as a mesmerist in a travelling sideshow?

So it's either a happy coincidence or cruel fate that Geek Love fell into my lap just now.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I was careful to say that Ms. Dunn "may" have drawn inspiration from Hugo's novel. Without knowing Ms. Dunn, there is no way that I can conclude that she borrowed from "The Man Who Laughs."

Holly said...

You did, but I'm saying it's meaningless to make such comparisons without having read both books. That's like saying, "Oh, both these covers are about war... maybe one was inspired by the other."

Joy Marchand said...

Honestly, if I had to pick one book to read again again, it would be a terribly difficult choice between Geek Love and The Magus by John Fowles. But those are my *2* favorite books. I swear.