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.