Picks and Pans Review: Geek Love

updated 05/22/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/22/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Katherine Dunn

Tired of tabloid headlines that don't deliver? Those "babies with two heads" turn out to be optical illusions? Dunn runs to the rescue with a whole novel full of the physically and emotionally disfigured.

Her third book, Geek Love, is narrated by a bald, albino, hunchbacked dwarf, Olympia Binewski, the third of a family of four carnival freaks. Or is she the fourth in a family of five? Hard to say, as her older sister/s is/are Siamese twins. Then there are some embryonic experiments that didn't live but are kept in jars and could be considered members of the clan.

Each child of the Binewski family was carefully designed by Crystal Lil, Oly's Boston Brahmin-turned-geek mother ("geek" is carnival slang for performers who chomp off the heads of live chickens), and Al, Oly's father and the head of the family's carnival, the Fabulon. "What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?" says Lil. To that end, Lil downed Al's prescriptions of drugs, insecticides and radioisotopes during her pregnancies. Oly's brother, Arty, was an early triumph. He bypassed the arm and leg department and has flipper like hands and feet attached to his torso. Dunn relishes the repulsiveness of her characters and she generates no sympathy for them, nor do they for themselves. Oly, in fact, is ashamed of being so close to a "norm" and wishes she had two heads or a fish's tail. Chick, the younger son, was almost left on a doorstep because he appeared at birth to be a norm—his telekinetic powers save him. And Lil lovingly polishes the jar that holds her stillborn, Clifford, who looks like "a lasagna pan of exposed organs with a monkey head attached."

Geek Love spins around the twisted intrafamilial power plays of Arty, better known to Fabulon fans as Aqua Boy. Preaching from the depths of a specially rigged aquarium, Arty becomes a demigod to the lonely and pathetic. He extols the solace of ugliness: "If I had arms and legs and hair like everybody else, do you think I'd be happy? NO! I would not! Because then I'd worry did somebody love me! I'd have to look outside myself to find out what to think of myself!" Most weirdly, a devoted cult of Arturans comes into being; to become more like Arty, they tithe, or "shed" their appendages—first the fingers and toes, later arms and legs. Dunn's writing is as crisp, clear and light as her characters are twisted, brooding and dark. No doubt she had in mind all sorts of socially relevant parallels between her freaks and our own fears: "We are the things that come to the norms in I nightmares," Arty tells Oly. But mostly Dunn gloats over creating an atmosphere of visual and moral queasiness that is as savory as a mouthful of raw egg. Because there is an indication at the beginning of the book that all the characters won't survive, and because there is a significant relationship that needs explaining, the novel inspires a macabre urge to plunge on through this world of human gargoyles just to see what happens. It's a tough and humorless trip, though, and at best shouldn't be undertaken on a full stomach. (Knopf, $18.95)

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