Sunday, February 12, 2017

Review: Geek Love

Geek Love Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love

For much of this weird and generally wonderful novel, I got the central conflict wrong. I thought this was – as the title and its ‘freak show’ setting imply – about accepting difference. I thought it was a provocative but ultimately conventional claim, that there’s a goodness and decency in accepting the other.

As it turns out, though, this novel more or less takes for granted that convention. Everyone accepts a fundamental notion of difference, at least everyone who comes into its orbit. The more troubling question turns out to be how one feels about physicality, about the body and flesh. And that turns out to be a more compelling conflict than a trite one between difference and ‘normalcy.’

I like almost all of this, but my favorite part is the magnificent opening sequence. We learn, seamlessly, that Al and Lil, have made the freak show, “the fabulon,” their family, and vice-versa. When hard times hit, they made the calculated decision to breed a family of midway acts. Lillian took all sorts of drugs and radioactive materials in order to alter her children, and she gives birth, in succession, to Artie the Aquaboy, a pair of conjoined twins, our narrator, Ollie, who’s an albino dwarf, and Chick, the telekinetic.

The heart of that opening sequence, though, is the great love and acceptance within the family. Al calls the children his “dreamlets,” and, despite the horror under the notion that the parents have induced birth defects, it’s a celebration of a great and physical love. (The prose description of Lillian as a young circus geek is worthy of a frame. Against my habit, I went back and re-read it just because it’s so lyrical.) These aren’t characters who are concerned about being ‘different.’ They are defiant in celebrating the wonder that they embody.

That ethos – or, if you prefer, that philosophy or that way of being – casts itself over the novel through that opening scene and through Ollie’s embrace of it. Like most of her siblings, she has inherited her father’s deep sense of wonder at the potential in human beings. It meets its opposite from two extremes.

On the one hand, Artie slowly develops a theory that ‘freakishness’ – particularly of his variety – is superior to the alternatives. His difference, his limbless aquatic muscularity, is the only kind that matters. Others should aspire to be like him. While the whole family looks down on “norms” who have no particular unusual physical characteristics, he takes it to an extreme. He cultivates insecurity in the people who come to him. He manipulates them into seeing their physical selves as a source of their unhappiness. (And, eventually, he turns to their mental selves as well.) He becomes a prophet of surgery against self. He supplants Al as head of the show, but he also supplants his philosophy of wonder with a philosophy of anti-body, of anti-flesh.

I’d spoil things to say how all that wraps up, but Artie’s philosophy meets its cousin in the person of Miss Lick, a wealthy heiress who – years later as part of a second plot woven (with some awkwardness) into the flashback portions – makes a fetish of removing or altering the birth ‘defects’ of others. She acts in the spirit of a condescending charity, but she’s motivated by a desire to make or remake others. Less like Al – who wanted to awaken dreams – and more like Artie, who wanted to impose a perverse sameness on the world, she pushes against possibility and toward the pre-fab quality of the frozen-dinner world in which she was raised as queen.

It’s only toward the end that that fundamental opposition comes into focus. Ollie, in her basic decency, loves Artie as much as he expects to be loved. She’s also drawn to Miss Lick even though she seeks her out to try to protect her daughter Miranda from her surgical predations. Even that opposition is complicated, though. Simple acceptance – as I’m tempted to characterize Al and Ollie’s perspective – does pale before Artie and Miss Lick’s calls for self-improvement. Ollie has achieved little in life, largely because she has so easily accepted the role everyone has cast for her. Artie and Miss Lick have a shared point; difference doesn’t just happen. Even the family is the product of a planned drug and radiation method. We are individual expressions of the species, but we are also the result of decisions we and others have made. It’s a complicated cycle, and there’s no clear resolution to it.

Throughout it all, the writing here shines, but I did get frustrated by some of the organization. On a page by page basis, this is a master class. More broadly, though, I wanted to see a more thoughtful braiding of the two narrative threads. We get a glimpse of the “now” of Miss Lick as soon as the second section of the novel, but we often go long stretches without returning to it. At a narrative level, the “now” passages get set up to resolve the entire story, but then they become so few and far between that they eventually fizzle. When we return to them at the end, they feel artificial. The real energy is all in the past, and it becomes hard to accept it as the end. There’s simply much less at stake in the conflict with Miss Lick; we haven’t gotten close enough to it for it to bear the weight of the conclusion.

In a similar vein, as wonderful a voice as Ollie’s is, she isn’t good at narrating change. She describes memorably and beautifully, but Dunn comes increasingly to depend on the notes of a reporter to fill in the changes in the story. It’s as if Ollie is made for us to marvel at, as if she is complete in herself. She simply doesn’t work as well at describing change.

If I squint, I can see this narrative misshapenness as reflecting the misshapenness of its characters. These are bodies that don’t fit together all that well, so why shouldn’t their story come to us in a form that rejects the organic shape of the conventional novel?

In the end, though, as much as I love the ideas and language here, that seems a too generous reaction, and I can’t quite overlook the structural issues. The arrogant inner editor in me kept wishing I could have helped put together a final draft, if I couldn’t have urged her to move a few sections around, limit some of the flashback, and expand some of the now.

I still think of this as a “five-star” novel, and I think parts of it will stick with me a long time. It’s so close to being even stronger, though, that I think I’ll recall its flaws for a good while, too. And maybe that really is part of the point.

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