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348 pages, Paperback
First published March 1, 1989
They thought to use and shame me but I win out by nature, because a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born.Geek Love is an amazing book, audacious, moving, beautiful, substantive, creepy, upsetting, tragic and dark.
“When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”Binewski’s Carnival Fabulon travels the Podunk USA circuit, offering pedestrian locals a peek at the extraordinary. The Binewski family will remind no one of Ozzie and Harriet. More the Addams family, sans the smirks. In fact, they may be the ones who put the nuclear in nuclear family. Frustrated by the frequent loss of carnival performers, Aloysius Binewski and his wife, Lilian Hinchcliff Binewski , (the Crystal Lil of the geek mention above) opt to craft their own, applying measured doses of sundry illegal substances, poisons, and radioisotopes to ensure that their progeny emerge special. The efforts that do not make it through to live birth, or who meet an unhappy end soon after their emergence, are displayed publicly in large glass jars. The survivors include Siamese twins, Iphigenia (Iphy) and Elektra (Elly), Arturo (Arty), the malevolent and megalomaniacal AquaBoy, Fortunato (Chick), who manifests telekinetic power, and Olympia (Oly), our narrator through this family saga. Oly relates the tale of the family to us as an adult. She makes a living as radio personality Hopalong McGurk, which is a good venue if you are a bald, albino dwarf with pink eyes, a sweet voice and a hump.
I was full-grown before I even set foot in a house without wheels. Of course I had been in stores, offices, fuel stations, barns, and warehouses. But I had never walked through the door of a place where people slept and ate and bathed and picked their noses, and, as the saying goes,”lived,” unless that place was three times longer than it was wide and came equipped with road shocks and tires.Sometimes that family connection can be problematic. Oly is in love with her brother, Arty. AquaBoy is exceptionally bright and tuned in to what works on audiences. He expands his performance from a display of his unusual form to an interaction, as he finds success answering audience questions. He builds this into a very big deal
When I first stood in such a house I was struck by its terrible solidity. The thing had concrete tentacles sunk into the earth, and a sprawling inefficiency. Everything was bigger than it needed to be and there were so many shadowed, dusty corners empty and wasted that I thought I would get lost if I stepped away from the door. That building wasn’t going anywhere despite an itchy sense that it was not entirely comfortable where it was.
For a while, he answered only generic questions distilled from the scrawled bewilderments and griefs that piled up on the three-by-five cards. Then he stopped answering at all and just told them what he wanted them to hear. Testifying he called it.And a cult is born, Arturism, in which the Admitted, seeking to find the peace that Arty has persuaded them he possesses, allow their bodies to be whittled a piece at a time.
There are really two primary preoccupations of mine involved in this book. One of course is this concept of the cult, and the how-come of that. And the other was the long debate of nature vs. nurture. So those two things linked and seemed to be in an odd way part and parcel of each other, I guess.We are asked to look at questions about the definition of normalcy. Most of the time in literature the freaks want to be like everyone else. Here the norms seem to pine for freakishness. Dunn offers a fascinating comparison between the oddness of the Arturists and what society considers appropriate.
It’s interesting that when these individuals choose—and it is their choice always—to endure voluntary amputation for their own personal benefit, society professes itself shocked and disapproving. Yet this same society respects the concept that any individual should risk total annihilation in war, subject to the judgment of any superior officer at all and for purposes ranging from a promotion for the lieutenant to higher profits for the bullet company. Hell, they don’t just respect that idea, they flat expect it. And they’ll shoot your ass if you don‘t go along with it.At what point does cultishness, do the needs of the pack, become the norm?
The sky above Molalla was aching blue but I walked from Arty’s tent to our van in the same air I’d sucked all my life. It was a Binewski blend of lube, grease, dust, popcorn, and hot sugar. We made that air and we carried it with us. The Fabulon’s light was the same in Arkansas as in Idaho—the patented electric dance step of the Binewskis. We made it. Like the mucoid nubbin that spins a shell called “oyster,” we Binewskis wove a midway shelter called “carnival.”There is plenty more where that came from. There is also serious structural craft on display, as Dunn, in this modern fable, wields parallelism deftly, particularly as applied to how people are formed and changed, and the diverse motivations, self and external, involved in the formation of who we are and what we are capable of, for good and ill. There is a particularly poignant look at innocence in childhood vs adulthood.
"It is, I suppose, the common grief of children at having to protect their parents from reality. It is bitter for the young to see what awful innocence adults grow into, that terrible vulnerability that must be sheltered from the rodent mire of childhood...
How deep and sticky is the darkness of childhood, how rigid the blades of infant evil, which is unadulterated, unrestrained by the convenient cushions of age and its civilizing anesthesia."
"Just being visible is my biggest confession, so they try to set me at ease by revealing our equality, by dragging out their own less apparent deformities.... They tell me everything eventually."I should say that in Geek Love, people outside the family are labeled "Norms" and are usually disregarded. Norms are boring, and lack the special qualities of the family members!
"...If he comes to loving me it's because I've twisted him and changed him. If he loves me he's corrupted. I can't love him anymore. I won't pretend it didn't hurt."This book won't be for everyone, but that's what makes it so great. She doesn't sugarcoat or temper anything, and it's in her willingness to go to an extreme where the beauty lies. But Dunn already knew she didn't fit as a norm!
And then later, a similar sentiment from Oly...
"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."
A quasi-religious cult making no representations of a god or gods, and having nothing to say about life after death. The cult represents itself as offering earthly sanctuary from the aggravations of life. Small chalked graffiti, said to be the work of the Admitted, are found in many locations after the Binewski carnival has passed through. Arturo persuades people to have their limbs amputated (so that they can be like him) in their search for the principle he calls PIP ("Peace, Isolation, Purity"). Each member moves up in stages, losing increasingly significant chunks of their body, starting with their toes and fingers. Many commercial posters distributed in advance of the show read, "Arturo knows, All Pain, All Shame, and the Remedy!" A fee, called a dowry, is required for entering the novice stage. The exact amount varies, but it averages $5,000 and is based on the novice's resources. The more the greedy Arturo can get, the more he will take.
Dear daughter, I won't try to call my feeling for Arty love. Call it focus. My focus on Art was an ailment, noncommunicable, and, even to me all these years later, incomprehensible. Now I despise myself. But even so I remember, in hot floods, the way he slept, still as death, with his face washed flat, stony as a carved tomb and exquisite. His weakness and his ravening bitter needs were terrible, and beautiful, and irresistible as an earthquake. He scalded or smothered anyone he needed, but his needing and the hurt that it caused me were the most life I ever had. Remember what a poor thing I have always been and forgive me.
He saw no use for you and you interfered with his use of me. I sent you away to please him, to prove my dedication to him, and to prevent him from killing you...
My job was to come back [from the convent] directly, with nothing leaking from beneath my dark glasses, to give Arty his rubdown and then paint him for the next show, nodding cheerfully all the while, never showing anything but attentive care for his muscular wonderfulness. Because he could have killed you. He could have cut off the money that schooled and fed you. He could have erased you so entirely that I never would have had those letters and report cards and photos, or your crayon pictures, or the chance to spy on you, and to love you secretly when everything else was gone.
He could have done worse, but he chose not to.