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Literature & Medicine: Must Reads
by Marli Weiner ::: bio

Marli Weiner has been a facilitator for Literature & Medicine in Maine since the program began in 1997, and is currently facilitating for Maine Coast Hospital in Ellsworth, Maine.

 

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Imagine growing up in a family in which your siblings include one with flippers instead of arms and legs, conjoined twins who share one body from the waist down, and one capable of telekinesis and removing physical pain from others. (The siblings who did not survive are preserved in jars and carefully tended by the family.) Such is the situation of Olympia Binewski, a “bald albino hunchback” whose father experimented with “illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes” in order to “breed his own freak show” in Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love. The novel is the complex story of the family’s experiences inside the world of a traveling carnival as well as their encounters with the larger society of “norms.” Early in the novel, the narrator warns herself not to “get too comfortable,” which is a useful metaphor for the experience of reading this compelling and challenging book.

While the children’s bodies and “work” at the carnival make their lives different from those of most children, the family dynamics in this novel raise questions of concern to all of us. Shifting alliances among the siblings and between the children and their parents, bickering, devotion, desire for revenge, and a shared sense of identity mark their relations with one another even as each child struggles for autonomy and power. Their efforts to do so are complicated by a cult that encourages members to seek “peace, isolation, and purity” by removing body parts, aided by a self-taught doctor; a rotating cast of hangers-on with their own emotional and physical peculiarities; and, for those who survive into the next generation, a daughter with a tail and a wealthy woman whose hobby is to encourage achievement in attractive women by paying for surgery to make them look ordinary.

This is an extraordinary book for Literature & Medicine readers. The novel raises a host of topics relevant to those working in health care, including such fundamental issues such as what is considered normal and how to reconcile different value systems. It focuses on the potential dangers of charisma and empathy, particularly when people who elicit such feelings manipulate them for their own ends. Tackling the vulnerability inherent in disability, the novel offers a completely unsentimental look at physical differences. Instead, it forces readers to consider ways of dealing with people who are emotionally difficult, particularly in terms of family dynamics that demonstrate ways of thinking that differ from mainstream values. Dunn’s book asks the reader to think about ways those values are transformed in other contexts — and also about the ways in which those values mask the dynamics of power present in all families.

As suggested by the title, the novel also raises questions about the nature of love. The ways in which need is transmuted into love or love into need, the isolation that love sometimes demands, and the tensions between selfish and unselfish love are all themes that present themselves for discussion. Similarly, the book raises issues about the reciprocal tensions of fear and tyranny: fear of loss, the nature of abuse, the tyranny of the sick over the well and the caregiver, the line between interdependence and control. At the same time, the characters’ ability to celebrate their family and themselves offers the opportunity to talk about unconditional as well as conditional love.

Literature & Medicine readers may well find the book disturbing; some have been unable to finish it. Our group was almost evenly divided between those who found it difficult and those who could not put it down. They understood its relevance to their work most directly in terms of the dilemmas posed by disability, disfigurement, plastic surgery, and genetic engineering, but were also inspired by the issues raised about power, family, values, and what counts as normal. In spite of its richness, this book may not be best suited for first-year programs; at the very least, it should be saved for the end of the series. Even so, the quality of the writing, the vividness of the characters, and the importance of the issues it raises make Geek Love a book worth including.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn Warner Books, Inc., 1990 ISBN: 0446391301

 

Must Reads is an opportunity for Literature & Medicine facilitators to review good texts for Literature & Medicine seminars. A fixture of every Synapse issue, Must Reads will have a rotating authorship. We invite any Literature & Medicine facilitator to submit a review of a reading that may have gone unnoticed by other groups.

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Literature & Medicine has received major support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

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