I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. Although dealing with a somewhat "dry" subject (as legal & economic matters are to me), the writi...moreI enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. Although dealing with a somewhat "dry" subject (as legal & economic matters are to me), the writing is fairly simple and accessible, and it is an important book to anyone studying disability (I've seen it cited quite frequently, one of the reasons I read it in the first place). It impressed upon me the way disability has always been tied up with economic power and the concept of work. Ability and inability are not as simple concepts as we usually assume them to be. The concept of work itself is not so simple. It also helped me to understand how welfare and social aid are handled from a governmental point of view, and how these mechanisms actually benefit government to a certain point, as they help to constrain the demands of able-bodied workers, especially during times of economic hardship. So, in a sense, governments of industrialized countries needed the category of disability to make industrial capitalism work.(less)
This book boasts many strange characters, vividly and believably drawn. The Binewski children, intentionally b...more***THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS***
This book boasts many strange characters, vividly and believably drawn. The Binewski children, intentionally bred to have deformities by their parents, in order to draw crowds for their traveling carnival; the Bag Man, who lives without a face; Dr. Phyllis and Miss Lick, women who, for different reasons, have made it their lives’ work to enact radical surgical amputations. In the world of these characters, abnormality is valued; the more deviant from the “norms” the better. In fact, the narrator, Oly—a hunchbacked albino dwarf—is a bit of a disappointment to her family because her deformities aren’t unusual enough. She certainly doesn’t fit in with the norms, but her abnormalities aren’t spectacular enough for display. Instead, she works as a barker for the show, and is a slavish devotee of the show’s star: her brother, Arty.
It is hard for me to picture what Arty looks like, not because he isn’t well-described, but because he has flippers instead of hands and feet. Unlike other deformities described in the book, Arty’s isn’t based on a real condition. (There is the case of Chick, but I will get to him later.) But if you can get past that, his personality is clear and real enough: he is a megalomaniac, controlling and insecure. He is the villain of the book, though mostly people love him, to the point of obsession and their own ruin. Oly, hopelessly in love with him, is treated by him as a contemptible toadie to fulfill his demands, poses no threat. However, the Siamese twins—Elly and Iphy—rival him for stardom.
What I loved most about this novel is how it inverts the whole normal/abnormal dichotomy. I found out about this book through David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder’s Narrative Prosthesis, a critical book about depictions of disability in literature. They cite Geek Love as one of the more positive and nuanced portrayals of disabled characters. While I wouldn’t quite say that Geek Love shows disability in a positive light, it does play with our assumptions about normality.
Characters willingly embrace deformity, as in the case of the Binewski family. Or they are seduced into it—as with Arty’s cult, attendees at his shows who come to believe that they can achieve enlightenment through amputation, or Miss Lick’s prodigies, attractive women whom she convinces to surgically alter themselves so as to lead more fulfilling lives. Yet, bodily alterity comes with the same traits of vanity, jealousy, ignorance, and cruelty that accompany mainstream norms of healthy, attractive bodies. Dunn often describes the strange world of the Binewskis with beautiful prose, but she does not flinch from stark depictions of dysfunction and loathsomeness.
We definitely need more books like this, narratives that challenge assumptions about attractiveness and bodily norms. Yet the novel also connects the embrace of freakery with commercialism, manipulative tendencies, and unstable behavior. I would like to see a book that takes on some of the ideas of Geek Love, with prose and plot that are similarly powerful and compelling, while portraying characters with disabilities or deformities in a more truly positive sense. Unfortunately, this seems very hard to do. The comic book character of Daredevil, a blind superhero whose other senses are super-advanced, is a rare example of such an attempt, but his other senses so offset his lack of sight as to render his disability almost nonexistent. Most examples of disability in literature take on a single disabled character, and like with the Daredevil figure, erase the disability to an extent. Few books take on abnormality as a thematic concept in the way that Geek Love does.
Some aspects of this world aren’t totally convincing or compelling. The most difficult part of the narrative for me was not being able to like our narrator, Oly. She is aware of her own flaws, but is so full of self-loathing, self-pity, and spinelessness that it made me more annoyed than sympathetic with her. She is shrewd, even manipulative, but cannot seem to transcend her obsessive devotion to others—whether it is to her psychotic brother or daughter, Miranda. She shifts back and forth between her life in the family carnival, and her present watch over Miranda and her now mostly blind and deaf mother. I believed that, given that she served others all her life, she would be protective of her child, but her ultimate actions to do so didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
Speaking of endings, the climatic conflagration at the end of the carnival story disappointed me. Dunn rushed through it in a page or so, and the chain of events felt disjointed and forced. I felt that Dunn needed to wrap it up, and wanted us to see the disaster as inevitable, which I didn’t quite buy.
I also have to wonder about the choice of Siamese twins as Arty’s rival. The girls draw crowds by playing the piano. Really? That’s spectacular enough to threaten Arty? Siamese twins seem almost too “normal” to be that interesting, even if marginally musically talented, especially given that other than being conjoined, their appearance is conventionally beautiful. They seemed like the blandest characters to me, without much personality or interesting qualities other than the fact that, unlike Oly, they stand up to Arty.
One other part of the novel that I grappled with is Chick, the Binewski child who appears “normal” but who has telekinetic powers. OK. He becomes sort of like Oly, devoted to the family but not really fitting in. I liked this idea of freaks who are not freakish enough, outcast from both the norms and the freaks. And they seemed to be the most compassionate people in the book (but then maybe they had to be, to feel some level of acceptance). Still, the whole telekinetic thing felt out of place. I’m a fan of stories of the paranormal and supernatural, but why include that here? I mean, I understand that his ability is seen as having a biological basis, a deformity of sorts just like those of the other children, but why not stick to more realistic conditions? And the fact that, like Oly, he helps rather than has his own show—because his parents supposedly worry about the government finding out about him and taking him away—just doesn’t convince me. His role seemed more like a plot device.
Despite its flaws, the novel was one of the most intriguing books that I have read. I loved the strangeness of the characters, though it was hard to like most of them. I loved the complexity of the plot, though it stretched credulity at times. And the writing is rich enough to feel that I could get something out of revisiting it again at some point. (less)
This memoir by teacher and poet Stephen Kuusisto, who is legally blind, his sight limited mostly to colors and vague shapes, revolves around two centr...moreThis memoir by teacher and poet Stephen Kuusisto, who is legally blind, his sight limited mostly to colors and vague shapes, revolves around two central ideas: being an "awake listener," a concept that he relates to Whitman (a poet he invokes throughout--he even quoted Whitman during his father's eulogy), and describing the experience of being a blind traveler. As he says at the outset, the memoir was partly inspired by a woman who had recently lost her sight and asked, "But if you're blind, why travel?" At the time, he didn't have a good answer. Now he does, in book form.
Kuusisto's poetic nature comes through in many of the descriptions--he is a fantastic poet and I recommend his collection Only Bread, Only Light to anyone into poetry--and this elevates the narrative of memoir to something more than just a collection of memories or journal entries. However, many of the strongest moments are early on, when he is recounting childhood: Ch 2 "Horse" is one of the most powerful descriptions I've read anywhere. He stumbles into a dark barn, completely blind, but richly aware of smells and sounds. The description of the horse's breathing captures something almost mystical. Most of the book, however, recounts his travels as an adult around the U.S. and the world, and there are definitely intriguing moments there as well. Ch 15 "Dog-Man: The Action Figure" in particular, where he consciously tries to cultivate the "active listener" state of mind, works well.
Some parts, though, dragged for me, something that didn't happen once in his previous memoir, Planet of the Blind. Perhaps it's that I don't have the same wanderlust Kuusisto does and interest in other places (I guess I'm more of an idea person than a place person). Ch 19 "Blue Lagoon," where he chronicles a trip to Iceland to hear a Cuban jazz band (the Buena Vista Social Club), lost my interest. I was surprised since I'm usually into any writing that shows a passion for music, but both the description of his other adventures with his friends there, as well as the concert itself, seemed to lack something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Parts of the book capture the experience of blindness, and do a great job of trying to describe the world through sound, smell, and other senses (as well as some creative and imaginative visualizing), while others fall flat.
I did appreciate the irony, humor, and intelligence in much of the writing. At parts he all but admits being envious of those with more vision, while at others he wryly recounts some of the prejudices and absurdities people speak in when they encounter a blind man and his guide dog. His guide dog helps him through much of his journeys, while the descriptions and assistance of sighted companions also help him to fully experience each new place. Who said the blind can't travel?
While I would say that his previous memoir, Planet of the Blind, is superior, this is nevertheless an interesting exploration of listening and travel as told through a poet and blind man.(less)