“Conspicuous Absences and Superfluous Presences”: The Affect of the Freakish in Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love

The title of Katherine Dunn’s 1989 cult novel Geek Love refers to a common performer of the American freak show in the 19th and 20th centuries. A “geek show” often culminated with its performer biting the heads off of live chickens and swallowing them. I find this juxtaposition of such a gruesome act with the tender and intimate word “love” to be a useful model in approaching Dunn’s novel. Geek Love traces the history and legacy of an American traveling carnival family, the Binewskis, via two timelines. The first timeline recounts the rise and fall of the Binewski Fabulon, while the second details the struggle of Olympia Binewski to reconnect with her estranged daughter. The novel is complex both formally and thematically, treating issues ranging from bodily normalization, to genetic modification, to sexual difference, and so forth.My focus today is on the binary tension within the novel between the “freakish” and “normal.” To put this focus into perspective, I pose the following question: In Geek Love, how does Dunn construct, deconstruct, and complicate this binary in ways that might broaden our understanding of the possibilities, potentials, and limits of bodily representation in literature? My approach involves first identifying and reading the formal construction of certain bodies within the text and then staking claims about how these textual constructions might elicit reader responses and generate discourses around the body. I hope to show that Geek Love is unusual in its depiction of “normalities” and “abnormalities,” as it breaks down our very understanding of these terms via formal and affective means.

As mentioned, the binary tension that haunts Dunn’s novel posits the “freakish” on one end and the “normal” on the other. To better explain the construction of this binary, I turn to disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s notion of the “normate,” which she claims, “usefully designates the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings” (8). The idea of a “definitive human being” is applicable throughout Geek Love in regards to different kinds of completeness: physical, emotional, intellectual, sexual, etc. The ideology of “completeness” plays into the way in which bodies are manipulated throughout the novel, and, in fact, “completeness” takes on different meanings depending on who is using the term.

In mobilizing the freakish-normal binary, Dunn introduces the terms “freak” and “norm” to describe the different bodies that inhabit her text. Within the Binewski family, there is an inversion of the traditional value invested in these terms, following Mikhail Bakhtin’s “logic of the ‘inside out’” of carnival. Born without arms or legs and billed as “Arturo the Amazing Aqua Boy,” Arturo Binewski (aka Arty) states, “I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique” (223). Thus, critic Jack Slay, Jr. claims that freakery is seen as a “wonder” in Dunn’s work, something sacred to emulate and to achieve, “a sanctification” (109). Arty ultimately takes this idea to an extreme with his cult of amputation.

Ironically, the novel’s construction of the freak-norm binary allows for its very dissolution. Critic Michael Hardin claims that the binary in Geek Love does not hold as soon as we see how freaks can become normal and norms can become freakish, primarily through bodily modification or deformation (337-338). In other words, the transformation of bodies and the fluidity of these categories contradict the very role of a binary. Arty’s guidelines for admission into his cult reveal the instability of the binary, listing convicted felons and the chronically ill as ineligible for admission on the grounds that these categories describe individuals who are “Already Freaks” (228). Additionally, Arty expresses a scale of “freakishness” when he tells his sister Olympia, “That’s my curse, I’m a freak but not much of a freak. I’m like you, fucked up without being special. There’s nothing unique about me except my brains and the crowd can’t see that” (103). It’s almost as if there is a “normate” within the realm of the freakish, dispelling the very physical existence of such an individual in the first place. Later on, the intersection of gender within the freak-norm binary will be shown to further disrupt the categories of this binary and challenge its validity from within.

Turning now to a formal analysis of the text, I’ll start with the novel’s narrative technique. Geek Love’s narrative is primarily filtered through the character of Olympia Binewski (aka Oly). Oly is the third of five living Binewski children and is an albino hunchbacked dwarf. Her bodily situation is far from incidental—as theorist N. Katherine Hayles indicates, “Oly’s sense of scale…is reified within the text, for the events are told from the perspective of someone whose eyes come at the level of most people’s crotches” (414). Although subtle, readers necessarily take part in Oly’s day to day movements, which are contingent upon her physical situation. As a child, Oly sleeps in the cupboard beneath the sink of the Binewski family van, a practice she continues as an adult. At three feet tall, she is constantly climbing onto various structures to see or reach things, often noting to the reader what she is unable to see or reach. This invites the reader to experience or empathize, rather than simply view, bodily difference within the text.

Formally filtering the narrative through Oly also tends to avoid a superficial representation of physical difference via a traditional “mediating narrative voice.” This narration makes it difficult for the presumably “normate” reader to distance him or herself from the bodily situation of the freak. The narrative resists the “rhetorical effect of representing disability,” which tends, Garland-Thomson argues, to emphasize certain traits, qualities, and behaviors, while omitting others, in order to create a rhetorical effect that simplifies the disabled character. Dunn avoids the objectification of Oly by offering her subjectivity as a link between the two temporal spaces of the novel. The reader identifies with Oly as she moves between past and present, our only textual and narrative anchor in a story that takes place across thousands of miles and over several decades.

Reader recognition with Oly-as-narrator also tends to reverse the gaze of norm on freak back onto the reader, creating an unsettling feeling of being gazed upon by the text itself. One instance of this reversal happens during one of Oly’s strolls through the carnival midway. She narrates:

Sometimes when I felt the eyes crawling on me from all sides, I got scared thinking someone was looking who wasn’t just curious…that feeling that…anybody could be looking at me in the sidelong way that norms use to look at freaks… (85)

A similar scene takes place toward the end of the novel when Oly notices a group of girls staring at her from across an Athletic Club swimming pool. Using similar language to the previous passage, Oly relays her thoughts:

The children’s eyes are crawling on me…they are just old enough to be embarrassed at their normality in front of me. Because I…am accustomed to the feel of eyes moving on me, I turn slightly on my submerged seat and reach down…This angle will allow the children a clear profile view of my hump. (325-326)

The effect is a layering of the gaze, in which the reader is placed beyond the spectacle to a certain extent. Undoubtedly, we are spectators; however, we are spectators of the spectators of the spectacle as well. To futher complicate the situation, we are not entirely separate from Oly, as she draws us into her perspective with a first-person point of view. Thus, as the scene unfolds, we too feel the “crawling” eyes of the onlooking girls.

While these textual elements of the novel help us to consider reader empathy and affect in relation to the freakish character, it is the body as a site of difference and power that engenders certain representational possibilities and foreclosures in the text. Critic Katherine Weese notes that sexual difference within the carnival of Geek Love is textually inscribed through the women that inhabit it. For example, Oly acts as Arty’s personal servant and the Siamese twin sisters, Iphigenia and Electra Binewski (aka Iphy and Elly), are both physcially and artistically dominated by Arty. I’ll now focus specifcally on this conflict between Arty as what Weese calls a masculinized creator and his sisters Iphy and Elly as representative of a sexual specificity that he must objectify in order to exert and maintain control.

The Arturan Cult initially arises from one of Arty’s sermons, during which he singles out a woman in a diatribe about bodily image. Employing a rhetoric of mass advertisement combined with an American Protestant tradition, Arty offers the contradiction of simultaneous acceptance and rejection of the body, or, as Hardin puts it, a position “between desiring the body and hating the body” (338). The climax of Arty’s speech unfolds as follows:

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! And I’d have to look outside myself to find out what to think of myself! (178)

Arty then asks this woman what she wants, and she replies, “I want to be like you are!” (178). Thus, the response to Arty’s call to embrace the body is an ironic desire to become just like him. This marks the beginning of the amputative practice underlying Arturism: the cult’s Admitted undergo a series of amputations, in hopes of ultimately emulating Arty’s corporeal form.

For Weese, Arty practices a “masculine art,” which consists of manipulating bodies, turning norms to freaks, and “othering” those who are not freakish enough. Hayles describes Arty’s control and re/defiguring of bodies as generating “the body of the text [from the] bodies within the text” (415). Arty exhibits a particular kind of control over the body of his younger sisters Iphy and Elly. The twins’ success in the Binewski Fabulon is tied to their bodies, which implicates them in a discourse of the body to an extreme degree. When Oly notes that “Papa wouldn’t let them play their own songs in their act” (89), the twins are denied a level of subjectivity or choice, and when they ultimately decide to retake control of both this act and their body, the consequences are drastic.

When the twins receive their own living van, Elly convinces Iphy to participate in prostituting their joint body to high paying norms. Lest we forget the freak-norm binary heavily at play here, Elly explains her reasoning:

You know what the norms really want to ask?…What they really want to know…is How do we fuck? That and who, or maybe what…The thing that boggles them and keeps them staring all the way through a sonata G is musing about our posture in bed. (207)

Again, Dunn creates a layered gaze in which the presumably normate reader is uncomfortably implicated in the stare of the norms. This stare reduces the twins to an object, an extraordinary, sexualized body. And yet, the twins view this as an empowering opportunity in a space where they are afforded very few other opportunities for such power.

That said, when Arty learns of his sisters’ sex work, he puts an end to it by “giving” them to one of his henchmen (245). This begins Arty’s sedation of the twins, which reaches its disturbing peak in Elly’s lobotomy. Leading up to the lobotomy, the twins are raped and impregnated by Arty’s henchman. Arty furthers this initial stripping away of the twins’ bodily autonomy by preventing them from obtaining an abortion and virtually taking full control of their body. However, Hayles suggests that it is Arty’s inability to think beyond binaries that causes his downfall, claiming that Elly retains a degree of otherness, and thus implicit subjectivity, by virtue of her attachment to her sister (417). This subjectivity violently reawakens as Elly recovers from her lobotomy, ultimately leading to the destruction of the entire Binewski Fabulon.

Reading Bakhtin’s notion of the grotesque body from a gender-conscious perspective, theorist Mary Russo writes, “[I]n the everyday indicative world, women and their bodies, certain bodies, in certain public framings, in certain public spaces, are always already transgressive” (60). Perhaps this is one way in which we might read the bodies of Elly and Iphy. Within the text, Elly and Iphy transgress ideas about “the definitive human,” Hayles noting that the two “share a common digestive tract, anus, and genitalia” (415). The twins’ body confounds Arty’s attempts at dominance via a “masculine art” that relies on binaries of complete and incomplete, freak and norm, self and other, subject and object. Geek Love, thus, thinks beyond the possibility of embodiment within such simplistic binaries. Movement between extremes is fluid in the novel, and any treatment of the body in this context requires accounting for these intersections of gender, as well as those of race, class, and other identity markers.

Through the two aspects of the novel discussed here today, we see in Geek Love a refusal to accept what Garland-Thomson describes as “any simple dichotomy of self and other, normate and deviant” (9). First, Oly’s narrative perspective, which emphasizes embodiment yet does not reduce the freakish body to a set of rhetorical characteristics, resists distancing the reader and succeeds in eliciting certain affective and empathic responses. Second, the role of sexual difference in the manipulation and control of bodies within the freak-norm binary indicates the impossibility of extracting gender from the power dynamics of bodily representation. Indeed, it is the multidimensionality of the novel’s formal and thematic elements that draws us into a world of different bodily possibilities, not to commodify these bodies for aesthetic or rhetorical purposes, but rather to demonstrate how powerful the contributions of materiality, ideology, and language are to the representation of both “acceptable” and “unacceptable” bodies.

Bibliography

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Dunn, Katherine. Geek Love. New York: Warner Books, 1989.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Hardin, Michael. “Fundamentally Freaky: Collapsing the Freak/norm Binary in Geek Love.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 45.4 (2004): 337-46.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Postmodern Parataxis: Embodied Texts, Weightless Information.” American Literary History 2.3 (1990): 394-421.

Slay, Jack, Jr. “Delineations in Freakery: Freaks in the Fiction of Harry Crews and Katherine Dunn.” Literature and the Grotesque. Ed. Michael J. Meyer. Rodopi Perspectives on Modern Literature. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1995.

Russo, Mary The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity. Taylor & Francis, 2012.

Weese, Katherine. “Normalizing Freakery: Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love and the Female Grotesque.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 41.4 (2000): 349-64.