Here is the unforgettable story of the Binewskis, a circus-geek family whose matriarch and patriarch have bred their own exhibit of human oddities (with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes). Their offspring include Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs and a megalomaniac ambition worthy of Genghis Khan . . . Iphy and Elly, the lissome Siamese twins . . . albino hunchback Oly, and the outwardly normal Chick, whose mysterious gifts make him the family’s most precious—and dangerous—asset.
As the Binewskis take their act across the backwaters of the U.S., inspiring fanatical devotion and murderous revulsion; as its members conduct their own Machiavellian version of sibling rivalry, Geek Love throws its sulfurous light on our notions of the freakish and the normal, the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and the obscene. Family values will never be the same.
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The Nuclear Family: His Talk, Her Teeth
"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!' "
This same Crystal Lil, our star-haired mama, sitting snug on the built-in sofa that was Arty's bed at night, would chuckle at the sewing in her lap and shake her head. "Don't piffle to the children, Al. Those hens ran like whiteheads."
Nights on the road this would be, between shows and towns in some campground or pull-off, with the other vans and trucks and trailers of Binewski's Carnival Fabulon ranged up around us, safe in our portable village.
After supper, sitting with full bellies in the lamp glow, we Binewskis were supposed to read and study. But if it rained the story mood would sneak up on Papa. The hiss and tick on the metal of our big living van distracted him from his papers. Rain on a show night was catastrophe. Rain on the road meant talk, which, for Papa, was pure pleasure.
"It's a shame and a pity, Lil," he'd say, "that these offspring of yours should only know the slumming summer geeks from Yale."
"Princeton, dear," Mama would correct him mildly. "Randall will be a sophomore this fall. I believe he's our first Princeton boy."
We children would sense our story slipping away to trivia. Arty would nudge me and I'd pipe up with, "Tell about the time when Mama was the geek!" and Arty and Elly and Iphy and Chick would all slide into line with me on the floor between Papa's chair and Mama.
Mama would pretend to be fascinated by her sewing and Papa would tweak his swooping mustache and vibrate his tangled eyebrows, pretending reluctance. "WellIll . . ." he'd begin, "it was a long time ago . . ."
"Before we were born!"
"Before . . ." he'd proclaim, waving an arm in his grandest ringmaster style, "before I even dreamed you, my dreamlets!"
"I was still Lillian Hinchcliff in those days," mused Mama. "And when your father spoke to me, which was seldom and reluctantly, he called me 'Miss.' "
"Miss!" we would giggle. Papa would whisper to us loudly, as though Mama couldn't hear, "Terrified! I was so smitten I'd stutter when I tried to talk to her. 'M-M-M-Miss . . .' I'd say."
We'd giggle helplessly at the idea of Papa, the GREAT TALKER, so flummoxed.
"I, of course, addressed your father as Mister Binewski."
"There I was," said Papa, "hosing the old chicken blood and feathers out of the geek pit on the morning of July 3rd and congratulating myself for having good geek posters, telling myself I was going to sell tickets by the bale because the weekend of the Fourth is the hottest time for geeks and I had a fine, brawny geek that year. Enthusiastic about the work, he was. So I'm hosing away, feeling very comfortable and proud of myself, when up trips your mama, looking like angelfood, and tells me my geek has done a flit in the night, folded his rags as you might say, and hailed a taxi for the airport. He leaves a note claiming his pop is very sick and he, the geek, must retire from the pit and take his fangs home to Philadelphia to run the family bank."
"Brokerage, dear," corrects Mama.
"And with your mama, Miss Hinchcliff, standing there like three scoops of vanilla I can't even cuss! What am I gonna do? The geek posters are all over town!"
"It was during a war, darlings," explains Mama. "I forget which one precisely. Your father had difficulty getting help at that time or he never would have hired me, even to make costumes, as inexperienced as I was."
"So I'm standing there fuddled from breathing Miss Hinchcliff's Midnight Marzipan perfume and cross-eyed with figuring. I couldn't climb into the pit myself because I was doing twenty jobs already. I couldn't ask Horst the Cat Man because he was a vegetarian to begin with, and his dentures would disintegrate the first time he hit a chicken neck anyhow. Suddenly your mama pops up for all the world like she was offering me sherry and biscuits. 'I'll do it, Mr. Binewski,' she says, and I just about sent a present to my laundryman."
Mama smiled sweetly into her sewing and nodded. "I was anxious to prove myself useful to the show. I'd been with Binewski's Fabulon only two weeks at the time and I felt very keenly that I was on trial."
"So I says," interrupts Papa, " 'But, miss, what about your teeth?' Meaning she might break 'em or chip 'em, and she smiles wide, just like she's smiling now, and says, 'They're sharp enough, I think!' "
We looked at Mama and her teeth were white and straight, but of course by that time they were all false.
"I looked at her delicate little jaw and I just groaned. 'No,' I says, 'I couldn't ask you to . . .' but it did flash into my mind that a blonde and lovely geek with legsI mean your mama has what we refer to in the trade as LEGSwould do the business no real harm. I'd never heard of a girl geek before and the poster possibilities were glorious. Then I thought again, No . . . she couldn't . . ."
"What your papa didn't know was that I'd watched the geek several times and of course I'd often helped Minna, our cook at home, when she slaughtered a fowl for the table. I had him. He had no choice but to give me a try."
"Oh, but I was scared spitless when her first show came up that afternoon! Scared she'd be disgusted and go home to Boston. Scared she'd flub the deal and have the crowd screaming for their money back. Scared she'd get hurt . . . A chicken could scratch her or peck an eye out quick as a blink."
"I was quite nervous myself," nodded Mama.
"The crowd was good. A hot Saturday that was, and the Fourth of July was the Sunday. I was running like a geeked bird the whole day myself, and just had time to duck behind the pit for one second before I stood up front to lead in the mugs. There she was like a butterfly . . ."
"I wore tatters really, white because it shows the blood so well even in the dark of the pit."
"But such artful tatters! Such low-necked, slit-to-the-thigh, silky tatters! So I took a deep breath and went out to talk 'em in. And in they went. A lot of soldiers in the crowd. I was still selling tickets when the cheers and whistles started inside and the whooping and stomping on those old wood bleachers drew even more people. I finally grabbed a popcorn kid to sell tickets and went inside to see for myself."
Papa grinned at Mama and twiddled his mustache.
"I'll never forget," he chuckled.
"I couldn't growl, you see, or snarl convincingly So I sang," explained Mama.
"Happy little German songs! In a high, thin voice!"
"Franz Schubert, my dears."
"She fluttered around like a dainty bird, and when she caught those ugly squawking hens you couldn't believe she'd actually do anything. When she went right ahead and geeked 'em that whole larruping crowd went bonzo wild. There never was such a snap and twist of the wrist, such a vampire flick of the jaws over a neck or such a champagne approach to the blood. She'd shake her star-white hair and the bitten-off chicken head would skew off into the corner while she dug her rosy little fingernails in and lifted the flopping, jittering carcass like a golden goblet, and sipped! Absolutely sipped at the wriggling guts! She was magnificent, a princess, a Cleopatra, an elfin queen! That was your mama in the geek pit.
"People swarmed her act. We built more bleachers, moved her into the biggest top we had, eleven hundred capacity, and it was always jammed."
"It was fun." Lil nodded. "But I felt that it wasn't my true metier."
"Yeah." Papa would half frown, looking down at his hands, quieted suddenly.
Feeling the story mood evaporate, one of us children would coax, "What made you quit, Mama?"
She would sigh and look up from under her spun-glass eyebrows at Papa and then turn to where we were huddled on the floor in a heap and say softly, "I had always dreamed of flying. The Antifermos, the Italian trapeze clan, joined the show in Abilene and I begged them to teach me." Then she wasn't talking to us anymore but to Papa. "And, Al, you know you would never have got up the nerve to ask for my hand if I hadn't fallen and got so bunged up. Where would we be now if I hadn't?"
Papa nodded, "Yes, yes, and I made you walk again just fine, didn't I?" But his face went flat and smileless and his eyes went to the poster on the sliding door to their bedroom. It was old silvered paper, expensive, with the lone lush figure of Mama in spangles and smile, high-stepping with arms thrown up so her fingers, in red elbow-length gloves, touched the starry letters arching "CRYSTAL LIL" above her.
My father's name was Aloysius Binewski. He was raised in a traveling carnival owned by his father and called "Binewski's Fabulon." Papa was twenty-four years old when Grandpa died and the carnival fell into his hands. Al carefully bolted the silver urn containing his father's ashes to the hood of the generator truck that powered the midway. The old man had wandered with the show for so long that his dust would have been miserable left behind in some stationary vault.
Times were hard and, through no fault of young Al's, business began to decline. Five years after Grandpa died, the once flourishing carnival was fading.
The show was burdened with an aging lion that repeatedly broke expensive dentures by gnawing the bars of his cage; demands for cost-of living increases from the fat lady, whose food supply was written into her contract; and the midnight defection of an entire family of animal eroticists, taking their donkey, goat, and Great Dane with them.
The fat lady eventually jumped ship to become a model for a magazine called Chubby Chaser. My father was left with a cut-rate, diesel-fueled fire-eater and the prospect of a very long stretch in a trailer park outside of Fort Lauderdale.
Al was a standard-issue Yankee, set on self-determination and independence, but in that crisis his core of genius revealed itself. He decided to breed his own freak show.
My mother, Lillian Hinchcliff, was a water-cool aristocrat from the fastidious side of Boston's Beacon Hill, who had abandoned her heritage and joined the carnival to become an aerialist. Nineteen is late to learn to fly and Lillian fell, smashing her elegant nose and her collarbones. She lost her nerve but not her lust for sawdust and honky-tonk lights. It was this passion that made her an eager partner in Al's scheme. She was willing to chip in on any effort to renew public interest in the show. Then, too, the idea of inherited security was ingrained from her childhood. As she often said, "What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?"
The resourceful pair began experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes. My mother developed a complex dependency on various drugs during this process, but she didn't mind. Relying on Papa's ingenuity to keep her supplied, Lily seemed to view her addiction as a minor by-product of their creative collaboration.
Their firstborn was my brother Arturo, usually known as Aqua Boy. His hands and feet were in the form of flippers that sprouted directly from his torso without intervening arms or legs. He was taught to swim in infancy and was displayed nude in a big clear-sided tank like an aquarium. His favorite trick at the ages of three and four was to put his face close to the glass, bulging his eyes out at the audience, opening and closing his mouth like a river bass, and then to turn his back and paddle off, revealing the turd trailing from his muscular little buttocks. Al and Lil laughed about it later, but at the time it caused them great consternation as well as the nuisance of sterilizing the tank more often than usual. As the years passed, Arty donned trunks and became more sophisticated, but it's been said, with some truth, that his attitude never really changed.
My sisters, Electra and Iphigenia, were born when Arturo was two years old and starting to haul in crowds. The girls were Siamese twins with perfect upper bodies joined at the waist and sharing one set of hips and legs. They usually sat and walked and slept with their long arms around each other. They were, however, able to face directly forward by allowing the shoulder of one to overlap the other. They were always beautiful, slim, and huge-eyed. They studied the piano and began performing piano duets at an early age. Their compositions for four hands were thought by some to have revolutionized the twelve-tone scale.
I was born three years after my sisters. My father spared no expense in these experiments. My mother had been liberally dosed with cocaine, amphetamines, and arsenic during her ovulation and throughout her pregnancy with me. It was a disappointment when I emerged with such commonplace deformities. My albinism is the regular pink-eyed variety and my hump, though pronounced, is not remarkable in size or shape as humps go. My situation was far too humdrum to be marketable on the same scale as my brother's and sisters'. Still, my parents noted that I had a strong voice and decided I might be an appropriate shill and talker for the business. A bald albino hunchback seemed the right enticement toward the esoteric talents of the rest of the family. The dwarfism, which was very apparent by my third birthday, came as a pleasant surprise to the patient pair and increased my value. From the beginning I slept in the built-in cupboard beneath the sink in the family living van, and had a collection of exotic sunglasses to shield my sensitive eyes.
Despite the expensive radium treatments incorporated in his design, my younger brother, Fortunato, had a close call in being born to apparent normalcy. That drab state so depressed my enterprising parents that they immediately prepared to abandon him on the doorstep of a closed service station as we passed through Green River, Wyoming, late one night. My father had actually parked the van for a quick getaway and had stepped down to help my mother deposit the baby in the cardboard box on some safe part of the pavement. At that precise moment the two-week-old baby stared vaguely at my mother and in a matter of seconds revealed himself as not a failure at all, but in fact my parents' masterwork. It was lucky, so they named him Fortunato. For one reason and another we always called him Chick.
Reading Group Guide
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
“Wonderfully descriptive. . . . Dunn [has a] tremendous imagination.”–The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. We hope they will offer new ways of thinking and talking about a novel that Kirkus Reviews called an “audaciously conceived, sometimes shocking tale of love and hubris in a carnival family.”
1. Geek Love is preceded by an epigraph from “The Tempest,” in which the magician Prospero says of the monster Caliban: “This thing of darkness I Acknowledge mine” [“The Tempest,” 5.1.275-6]. How is this quote relevant to the novel? In what sense is Geek Love about acknowledging one’s own darkness, freakishness, or otherness?
2. Reviewers, even in praising Geek Love, have described it as “bizarre” (Chicago Tribune), “shocking” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution), and “grisly” (The Philadelphia Inquirer). In what ways does the novel seek to shock readers? What preconceptions does it try to overturn? How does it manage to be both engaging and deeply disturbing?
3. Reading imaginative literature requires, as Samuel Coleridge said, a willing suspension of disbelief. How difficult is it to suspend disbelief and enter into the fictional world of Geek Love? What are the rewards of doing so?
4. The first chapter of Geek Love is titled “The Nuclear Family,” and the father Al is described as a “standard-issue Yankee, set on self-determination and independence” [p. 7]. In what ways are the Binewskis like a typical American family, with its ambitions and rivalries and emotional power struggles? What is Dunn suggesting by pointing out these similarities?
5. Geek Love was written in the early eighties. How does it reflect and satirize American culture at that time?
6. When Chick is born, the family is ashamed and wants to get rid of him because he appears to be normal; Olympia speaks of escaping childhood knowledge into the innocence of adulthood; and eventually people who come to Arty’s shows pay to have their limbs amputated so they can feel whole again. What is Dunn suggesting through these reversals of values? What does she accomplish by subverting our “normal” ways of perceiving these things?
7. When Oly asks Arty if the ghost stories he reads scare him, he replies, “These are written by norms to scare norms. And do you know what the monsters and demons and rancid spirits are? Us, that’s what. You and me. We are the things that come to the norms in nightmares. . . . These books teach me a lot. They don’t scare me because they’re about me” [p. 46]. In what sense is Arty right in thinking that he and his siblings are the stuff of normal people’s nightmares? What is frightening about them? Is Dunn’s book disconcerting because in some important way it’s more a reflection of ourselves than we care to admit?
8. Katherine Dunn employs many unusual words in Geek Love: skootching, skuttered, rooched, snorking, frowzled, etc. What do such words add to the flavor of the novel? In what ways is such language appropriate to the story Dunn is telling?
9. In his journal, Norval Sanderson writes, “General opinion about Arty varies, from those who see him as a profound humanitarian to those who view him as a ruthless reptile” [p. 273]. Which of these views is more accurate? Is Arty a healer or a huckster?
10. How do the twins, Iphy and Elly, Arty, Chick, and Oly relate to each other? What roles do they play? How does Arty gain control over them?
11. Why does Dunn use the story of Hopalong McGurk, Miranda, and Mary Lick, which occurs in the fictional present, to frame the main narrative of the rise and fall of the Binewski family? What does each story line contribute to the other? In what ways is Mark Lick like Arty?
12. Olympia says that Miss Lick’s purpose in arranging disfiguring operations is to “liberate women who are liable to be exploited by male hungers. These exploitable women are, in Miss Lick’s view, the pretty ones.” After they lose their beauty they can “use their talents and intelligence to become powerful” [p. 162]. Is this a valid critique of the constraints of attractiveness for women? What does the novel as a whole say about the relation between appearance and power?
13. In one of Arturo’s statements to Norval Sanderson, he says, “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” [p. 223]. Is he right? Do most people fear being ordinary?
14. Why does Oly kill Mary Lick and then herself at the end of the novel? What are her hopes for her daughter?
15. The reviewer for Kirkus wrote that the novel is about “love and hubris in a carnival family.” How does love motivate the main characters in the novel? Who is guilty of hubris? What are the consequences of this overreaching ambition?