Collective Research—Conflicting Reviews
(Critics of the Novel Geek Love)
“Then one day . . ., Geek Love was born, out of a fit of anger at her son. ‘I’d been keeping up on genetic research, and I was sitting there thinking I could have designed a better kid. I had a sudden vision of designer kids with little Calvin Klein labels on the napes of their necks.’”—Sonja Bolle, Katherine Dunn
In a sudden irate flare, an idea was born. The idea spanned itself into the both wondrous and terrible world of the freak show, and concocted itself into a twisted tale wherein arguably the most inwardly twisted characters in the entirety of the novel start it all in their very own plan to breed their own freak show. The imagination paints a lavishly vivid picture for every page turned, and under each meticulous detail lays another, and then another even subtler. The mind explores the ethical controversies of exploiting human anomalies for profit and other personal gain, later traipsing upon the even heavier concepts of self-acceptance and embracing the freak within. The characters explore the darkest sides of the human conscious and of the general society, depicting a disturbing view behind the scenes of a fictional freak show and the masterminds that both begin its creation and, inevitably, cause its destruction.
The fictitious novel Geek Love, written by the quirky Katherine Karen Dunn, was published in 1989, quickly becoming a controversial subject between both scholars and entertainment editors of newspapers alike. Publisher Weekly’s review called Geek Love “terrifying,” “shocking,” and “bizarre (Bolle).” “It is all of these. And it’s not just the garden-variety repulsion. The terror induced by the characters in the traveling carnival, Binewski’s Fabulon, is of the wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-screaming variety (Bolle).” The abnormal and often deigned “completely deranged” characters set many readers on-edge, catching certain literary critics of the late 1980’s completely off-guard. Katherine Dunn once explained in an interview regarding her writing style, “I’ve been accused all my life of being preoccupied with the bizarre, the macabre, and the violent. But they are the actual parts of the world I see. The writers I like most tend to confront the aspect of life they’re dealing with.” A high degree of the shock value earned itself from the sobering fact that a writer at that point of time proved courageous and bold, leaping outwards from the safe haven of happy endings and the pitiful avoidance of sensitive subjects. Dunn proceeded to explain: “The determination required for honest exploration and analysis is often greater than I command.” It is imperative, therefore, to explore the specific ways in which Dunn’s book—the fruit of her laborious determination—was critically received, as well as my perspective on the matter; the novel paved way for a new perspective on life as portrayed in literature, while in the same note profoundly addressed the human condition as well as the increasing malleability of the human body made possible by quickly-advancing scientific research. Conflicts in interpreting the novel have paved way for numerous approaches to what exactly it is the remarkable piece of literature accomplished.
To begin, a common concept touched upon in scholarly essays analyzing the novel investigates and delves into the monstrous bodies portrayed as monsters themselves, as well as the definition of monstrosity. Daniel Punday, in his critical essay “Narrative performance in the contemporary monster story,” elaborates on how the novel identifies monstrosity as a peculiar publicity. He elaborates on Ollie’s realization that there is something inherently public about her ‘monstrosity.’ “In one sense, we might initially feel that such physical deformity is profoundly personal—it renders the individual unique and . . . sever[s] his or her experience from that of others. Dunn, however, insists that monstrosity places Ollie and her siblings in a permanently public role (Punday).” He takes a turn from the common view, interpreting the characters as therefore pure rather than revolting as a result of the public role that they share and wholly occupy. Perhaps it is the vividly and realistically natural portraits that Dunn creates in describing the freaks as the story progresses, which emphasizes on the effects of consistent publicity on those considered anomalies. It is Arturo that first discovers just how powerful this device in particular can be, in which Punday also addresses: “Of all of the members of the circus, Arty is the one to realize the power that monstrosity brings . . . Arty eventually goes on to exploit this objectivity . . . Arty’s religion exploits a number of contemporary insecurities, among which is the fear of being ordinary.” He seems to suggest here that the monstrosity itself is seen as the purity, and this purity so sought-after is the ‘being’ that Arty offers and sells to his followers inducted into the cult. This purity, as depicted by Dunn, can be summarized in Lil’s remark that her children “earn a living just by being themselves.” Rather than interpreting the characters as monsters both inside and out, Punday focuses on the actual purity behind their existence, and that the way in which they are displayed and in which they behave is without false guises and alterations. Their publicity is earned by refusing to hide what they truly are. This intriguing speculation deviates from the typical perspective, which is even further supported by writer James VanderMeer: “Dunn’s explorations of the utter mercilessness of science when applied by human beings provides a needed counterpoint to her sometimes repetitive lesson that the true monsters are often hidden behind handsome faces with charming smiles.” Is it implied here that the norms, including and especially the Binewski parents, may even be the truer monsters present in the story, the evil hiding deep within themselves. These views would thus be considered more positive and fascinated views into the complexity of Geek Love, musing, contemplating, and questioning rather than jumping to unfortunate conclusions.
Inevitably, with a novel of this caliber and such a daring interpretation of life and human capability, negative criticisms and rather angry or unpleasant reactions were commonplace. In the St. Petersburg Times on April 30th, 1989, freelance writer Harriet Brown had a rather enraged review in the newspaper published, describing the book as “throwing in just about every kind of freakishness you could imagine.” She considered the book to be a haphazard conglomeration of plot devices that served only to offend readers without a concrete purpose at all, and merely summarizes the book as a whole by listing the various things that appalled many people in the first place without a firm structure. She rabidly mocks the ending: “. . . It’s the ultimate exploitation flick laid down on paper. The book ends with a letter delivered posthumously from Oly to her now grown-up daughter Miranda . . . Then follows a weepfest of details and pleas for forgiveness.” She believed that the conclusion of the novel attacked and exploited the work itself, and felt too close to a cop-out or a cheap ending by revealing the book as merely a record of events all kept in a hidden space by the narrator. “It is freakishness for its own sake,” she continues to deride, “sensationalism prettied up with poetry.” It is here that she describes the book as, quite simply, pointlessness behind a façade of meaningful metaphors and lavish descriptions. She also refers back to the aforementioned argument, of whether or not the physically monstrous characters in the novel are monsters themselves. “The point being, further, not to judge a book by its cover. I was sure this message was the one Dunn had in store for me . . . But I was wrong. The freaks in her book are truly twisted, truly mean, truly brutal. They earn our revulsion but not our pity, for they are intelligent freaks, capable of making choices. They do not redeem themselves or us in the reading, and there is nothing we can learn from them (Brown).” This is a rather absurd conclusion to make, taking all of the work and material presented in the book and merely disregarding it as nothing. She suggests that the freaks are just that—freaks. Brown inspects the surface of the characters without peeling away at the intricate layers, ultimately guilty of judging a book by its cover without even giving it second thought.
In which I am led to offer my own take on the numerous opinions expressed regarding the purpose and underlying message of the book, especially regarding just how the book treats the concept of monstrosity and repulsiveness. Just as VanderMeer explained, I, too, believe that the freaks’ inner monstrosities were merely more exploited and inflated upon compared to the hidden evils within the norms portrayed in the book. Vern is an incredibly vital example to touch upon; he allows his fears and his threatened attitude grasp upon his psyche, and he attempts to murder the entire Binewski family as they decide to go shopping as a group. His emotions and his unfortunate family background history drives him nearly to madness when he displays his envy towards the family of freaks in such a violent manner, hiding homicidal tendencies under a mask of normalcy. The book is remarkable in that its underlying beauty lies hidden under the assumption that the freakish main characters, especially Arturo and the enigmatic Miss Lick, are the only true monsters that reside within the novel’s pages—that sometimes there are monsters or tumultuous and confused personalities concealed behind charming faces. The other reality the text emphasizes is that humans, whether they be anomalies or no, will lash out or attempt to defend themselves in multiple ways if they feel particularly threatened or provoked into doing so. Arturo, for example, acts impulsively in many ways for each time he feels his reputation in the traveling carnival is in jeopardy. It is heavily implied, for example, that he was the one who smothered Leona the lizard girl with a pillow, feeling that she would overshadow him if he allowed her to take the stage. He attempts to kill Chick in the same fashion, only then to be rebounded into the wall by the infant’s own attempt to protect himself. Vern attempts to kill the Binewskis because he feels frightened and insulted. The gamblers feel cheated and attack Al and Chick, and Chick retaliates when one of the men fruitlessly tries to drown him. Oly murders Miss Lick in the end when she feels her daughter’s defining physical characteristic (her tail) is in danger of being amputated. Miss Lick’s actions in the book are faintly implied to have slight hints of jealousy behind them towards women who are beautiful. Chick destroys the entire circus when he feels that the threat of the Arturan cult has grown too powerful, and commits suicide out of the sheer guilt of harming so many people at once—evidence of a gentle nature engulfed by the natural panic from the trigger of being threatened. It is here that Dunn demonstrates her incredible understanding of human instinct, one of the most major characteristics of the novel and, ultimately, one of the most controversial and misinterpreted. Perhaps this is where denial of these instincts comes into play—another result of feeling threatened by the truth, as exhibited by Harriet Brown’s rather hasty review.
In conclusion, Geek Love as a whole remains a near-impenetrable web of intricacy that may entangle those who dare to explore. As Daniel Punday explained in his critical essay, the novel plays upon insecurities and fears normally untouched by previously existing writers. An intriguing aspect is when he suggests that Arturo’s entire being was driven by the sheer experience of being so threatened by those he associated with that be began to play upon those same fears that he knew he could see in other people, manipulating these instincts unseen by oblivious minds. “Arty’s religion exploits a number of contemporary insecurities, among which is the fear of being ordinary; as Arty remarks, ‘I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness (Punday).’” While it is certainly unfortunate that many critics were so eager to accuse the book of being far too offensive, vulgar, and, as Brown also described in her interview, “boring,” it is exactly these reactions that drive the incredibly real nature and purpose behind the controversial novel: many humans fear their monsters inside.