Monday, April 15, 2013


GEEK LOVE is a National Book Award finalist novel by Katherine Dunn. It first was published in 1983, but my sister, Ann, only gave it to me to read a few days ago. (Whatever Ann thinks of me, she knows that, by definition, I'm not a Geek...) Ann shares my utter interest in all things macabre. While I am more into the vampiric, monsters-of-science and alien abduction genres, and she more into holocaust and child-gone-lost sociologic texts, we share a fascination for circus side-show tales. Ann knew I would thoroughly enjoy the darkness of Dunn's GEEK LOVE. Ann was correct.

Not only did the story entertain me throughout the week-end, there was a sense of closure that is sadly lacking in much of today's fiction--the kind of closure that makes a person snap the cover of the book and lean back, smiling. (Or snap the Kindle cover closed, if one possesses a Kindle...). The closest feeling I can compare this experience to is the satisfaction of a warm meal. Perhaps not a full-on clam-bake or Thanksgiving dinner, but at least a meal that is accompanied by smiles around the table, conversation and dessert.

What is it about circus side-shows, "freaks" and "geeks" that calls to some of us? The people peopling these jobs are not monsters. They simply have finely-hewn talents that astonish an audience. Or, they were born wearing their idiosyncrasies on the outside, instead of inside, like the rest of us. Whatever the draw, it is often enough. In Dunn's novel, the twist is that an entire family of  side-show marvels is planned, produced and put to work, by their parents--themselves pretty "normal"--at least on the outside. Through various gene manipulations ( use of controversial drugs; use of a cornucopia of mundane prescription drugs; exposure to everyday radiation for prolonged amounts of time; use of caustic and poisonous cleaning substances; assorted "iffy" activities involving physical stressors; bizarre potions, diets, and not a wee bit of spiritual hijinks), the parents cook up various "differently abled" prodigies--some who only make it for a few hours--others who live full, adult lives. For the members of the familia who are still-born (or barely born), there is the "pickling" in the special specimen jars--insuring a place in the group that will contribute to the well-being of all. How this stew of humanity sets forth on the planet, succeeding and employing others in their path, is the crux of this novel.

My love of the bizarre began at birth. I'm Irish. (Also French and Norwegian, but the Irish was the culture we were bombarded with.) The somber side of "invisible" surrounded us, always. I often prayed to the Unknown (as well as Jesus)--begging to be surrounded by angels and fairies of Light, but never to see them. I was a wuss and I knew it. Accepted the fact. Shared the information. Pleaded for protection, companionship, but never full-on apparition. (So far, for the most part, all parties have honored my wishes.)

Authors such as Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, Nathanial Hawthorne and Shirley Jackson expanded my awareness of the odd. I began to see the psychological monsters, as well as the physical ones. I also began to acquire an appreciation for that which is "different". (I suppose my own sense of "being different" was nurtured through these books--perhaps even expanded.) Later, film entered my consciousness. Suddenly, larger-than-my-life-or-imagination, in full living-color and surround sound, were the strange beings that populated my dreams! Art warped me--or art saved me. Whatever confronted me in my daily ablutions in the bathroom mirror could never compare to what I knew was "out there, somewhere".

Histories and biographies of "freaks and geeks" came later. Access to such texts was hard. Local librarians don't take kindly to ordering titles about pinheads and Siamese twins for adolescents, unless accompanying permission slips are signed by parental units, first. (At least, not in such small towns as Gardner...) Forget that road. I had to wait for college. Abnormal psych and sociological texts, comparative religions histories, a few biology manuals, and I was off and running. Finally, the Universe of the Internet opened us all to unlimited views of the world --inside and out.

You might think that over-exposure would remove the fascination. Not so. At least not in my case. It wasn't a fetish, nor even an obsession that I was nurturing. It was a search for the Unknown among us. I was no different than the cancer researcher or the astronomer or the National Geographic explorer. The more information I took in, or came across, the clearer my over-view became.

As a child, I grew up with "Little People" friends and family. Far more interesting to me were the "Giants" of humankind. As an adult, in the big cities, some athlete-friends and acquaintances filled the bill. In fact, the more people I met, over time, the less "odd" anyone seemed. We were far from the days of the "Elephant Man", at least in the United States. The side-shows forcing children with birth-defects, into the limelight, against their will, was least I believe so. Whatever side-show "freaks and geeks" remained, were now mini-stars, on t.v., in prime-time or major cable stations. No one seemed "odd" anymore--especially if they shared their divorce stories...

Those who chose their occupations of risk found that they had to add to whatever Nature blessed them with--ornamenting the differences or engaging in far more "geeky" behavior. Satisfying the masses was more and more difficult, since most of the masses had smart-phones or lap-top access.
And so, ever-increasing acts of stretching the human--limits have emerged.

The human hunger for "seeing something special" is insatiable. However, it is more than being entertained. Oddities, freaks, special-people with special gifts, even as they have their own reality shows and film-fest appearances, remain necessary. They explore human limitations. They present us with alternatives. They are the constant reminders that Nature loves diversity--not only tolerating anything that is different, but celebrating it. (Demanding it!) These people who dare openly share their gifts also remind us of that which is hidden: the not-so-apparent differences surrounding us all. Invisible worlds top physicists explore, daily. Invisible worlds interacting with us on levels we often can only "feel"--not yet articulate nor understand.

Finally, I think my fascination with "freaks" and the darker side is really a fascination with "Light". How can one perceive the light without its opposite, present?  Belief in a tolerant God is not enough, either. Belief demands a complex, powerful, daring, absolutely luscious, and possibly forever unknowable Creator--who so loves this world that s/he populates it with Mystery--to keep us seeking answers and connection.

After all, what is freakier than the human heart?             



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