Friday, October 5, 2012

Geek Love? More Like Grostesque Love.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Awhile ago I stumbled on a book called Wired Love: a Romance of Dots and Dashes, which was a pretty charming story about two telegraph operators finding love via, well, the telegraph.  (Yeah, it's from 1879.  Every once in a while I like to get old-school with my reading.)  So when I saw someone reading a book called Geek Love on the subway, I thought maybe it would make for a fun review to compare telegraph-operator romance with computer-geek romance.

So I open Geek Love, and it begins like this:
"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.  'Spread your lips, sweet Lil,' they'd cluck, 'and show us your choppers!'"
It turns out that "geek" is also an old term for a circus performer who bites the heads off of live chickens.  [In defense of my assumption, I maintain that the cover looks much more computer-geek-related than carnival-geek-related.  And do not tell me that I shouldn't judge a book by its cover.  Book covers are made for judging.]

From the very beginning, then, I was off balance; this book is basically the antithesis of the sweet or charming romance I'd expected to find.  The narrator, Olympia, is an albino hunchback dwarf: a set of words I find impossible to say out loud without feeling I'm setting up an absurd and probably offensive joke.  But I couldn't stop reading because I was so fascinated by the surreality.  The dwarf's parents (the aforementioned geek, Lil, and Al the carnival barker) experimented with radiation and other toxins during Lil's pregnancies.  Why?  Because:
"What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?"  
Gee, I really hope there's a deformity inside.
In other words, the more physically deformed you can make your children, the better off they'll be, because they'll always be able to get jobs as circus freaks.  I love the deeply disturbing logic to this statement.

The first bit of the book introduces us to a late-middle-aged Olympia, to her elderly and somewhat senile mother Lil, and to Olympia's only other living family: a daughter who was raised by nuns as an orphan, and doesn't know Olympia is her mother.  Then the book flashes back to Olympia's experience as a child in her parents' traveling carnival, growing up with an older brother who has flippers for limbs, sisters who are conjoined twins, and later a little brother who looks normal but has a kind of telekinetic power.  I'll avoid any spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the relationships among the siblings get pretty dark and twisted, until you think it couldn't possibly get any more dark and twisted, and then it does.

Part of me thinks there is a satirical bent to this novel, in its sly suggestions that extreme freakishness is preferable to normalcy.  Consider this:
If all these pretty women could shed the traits that made men want them (their prettiness) then they would no longer depend on their own exploitability but would use their talents and intelligence to become powerful.  Miss Lick has great faith in the truth of this theory.  She herself is an example of what can be accomplished by one unencumbered by natural beauty.  So am I.
Are we meant to believe that women -- or, at least, some women -- would be better off not being pretty?  I am honestly not sure.  Isn't that line of thought similar to the one that leads me to hope my younger sister doesn't get too distracted by boys in high school, so that she can focus on her schoolwork?  In that context, it doesn't sound so bad.  But take it just a step further, and you become Miss Lick, offering women money if they will let her destroy their beauty.  Or a step beyond that, and you become Olympia's flipper-boy brother, Arturo, preaching that happiness can be attained by voluntary self-mutilation.

Two things I know for sure:  (1) I will be thinking about this book for a long time, and (2) I will probably stop referring to myself as a geek.  Wait, does "nerd" have any double meanings I need to know about?


Lauren said...

Lol and this book won an award for...?

Reader One said...

It was a National Book Award nominee in 1989, apparently. As I said, though, it was very well-written and thought-provoking, so I think the award nomination was probably deserved. I just wish the title/cover combination had better prepared me for what was to come. To expand on my current books-as-food metaphor, it was a little like thinking I'd ordered a burger (simple, familiar, tasty, but a bit of a guilty pleasure) and getting steak tartare (scary and even a little gross when you think about it, but requiring some courage to commit to it).