Geek Love, the deviant child of The Tempest

Tags: Shakespeare, Olympia, freak, Fortunato, Crystal Lil, perspective, Caliban, New York, Alden T. Vaughan, Daniel Wilson, The Oxford Shakespeare, Marianne Novy, University of Illinois Press, Delia Bacon, gifts of Nature, Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare, literary canon, women writers, literary institutions, Stanley Wells, Arden Shakespeare, Adeline Chevrier-Bosseau ATER, Clifford Maple, Lillian, Elaine Showalter, Lillian Hinchcliff, Maple, Miranda, National Book Award, Al Binewski, Katherine Dunn, Dunn, Geek Love
Content: Adeline Chevrier-Bosseau ATER, Universitй de Caen-Basse Normandie Doctorante, Universitй Paris III ­ Sorbonne Nouvelle Geek Love, the deviant child of The Tempest A finalist for the National Book Award and the Bram Stoker Prize, Geek Love, written by Katherine Dunn, was published in 1989. The novel is set in a travelling circus, and follows Al Binewski and his wife, Lillian "Crystal Lil", and their children Arturo, Iphigenia, Electra, Olympia, and Fortunato, nicknamed Chick. Al is the son of the owner of a traveling carnival, and takes over the business when his father dies; Lillian, "a watercool aristocrat from the fastidious side of Boston's Beacon Hill" (GL 7), starts off working as the circus geek and performs in a number in which she bites off the heads of live chickens. After a trapeze accident, she finds another calling, helping her husband "breed [their] own freak show" (GL 7). The couple experiment on various drugs during Lillian's successive pregnancies and as a result, their children all have special "abilities": Arturo doesn't have proper limbs but flippers that sprout directly from his torso, and becomes the "aqua boy", swimming on stage in a water-filled tank. Iphy and Elly are Siamese twins, with two torsos and one set of legs, Oly is an albino dwarf hunchback, and Fortunato is telekinetic. The notion of deviance is central in Geek Love, a novel that is both deviant because it is considered from the perspective of the freak­Olympia, who is the narrator of
a novel written as a sort of legacy to her daughter Miranda­and because it stems from Shakespeare's Tempest and traces a deviant path from the original, canonical model. The epigraph, "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine" (T T, V, 1, 275-276), brings forth this deviant filiation. "This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine" This notion of a deviant filiation is first illustrated in the Binewski children, whose freakishness contrasts with their "normal" parents, and in the Binewski family relations on the whole. Those are indeed deviant at almost every level, from the parents' obsession to produce children who will be as freakish as possible, to the relations between the Binewski siblings. This pursuit of deformity, which is viewed as an asset for the children's future, is in complete opposition to the rules of traditional parenthood, when parents are obsessed with having a healthy child. Olympia's account of her conception exemplifies this familial deviance: 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. (GL 8) The term "conceiving a child" is not simply viewed here as the physical union of the parents, but equals the child to a Work in progress, an experiment, carefully planned and monitored by parents who put all their effort into achieving this project because it is above all a source of income. The attachment to the child is measured according to his or her value; consequently, the children who come out as not "special" enough are either killed or abandoned, like Fortunato, who is born apparently normal and is about to be left in a gas station when he reveals his own "specialty" by making his mother fly across the van. Because of the female point of view­a female author, giving voice to a female narrator­great emphasis is laid on motherhood, and more precisely on deviant motherhood. All mother-child relationships are dysfunctional, from Olympia's abandonment and then stalking of her daughter Miranda, to Lil's commodification of her children, or Elly's murder of her son Mumpo. In all three cases, parenthood is closely associated with some form of obsession towards the child, turning all these mothers into caricatures of different aspects of the archetypal hysterical mother. Having women consider motherhood through such patriarchal stereotypes could seem counter-productive at first, but in reality, this creates a sophisticated dynamics of deviance and deviation. Indeed, the ample use of irony towards these stereotypes­pushed to the verge of absurdity­allows the narrative, through a series of deviations, to reclaim the perspective on motherhood. In her study The Female Malady, Elaine Showalter stresses the strong
correlation between motherhood and hysteria: "Mental breakdown, then, would come when women defied their "nature", attempted to compete with men instead of serving them, or sought alternatives or even additions to their maternal functions" (Showalter 123). In Dunn's novel, if Crystal Lil is essentially a reproductive female, used for the breeding of freaks, and thus seemingly conforms to her "nature", her unnatural, obsessive and excessive, ambition to produce marketable freaks makes her hysterical. Miscarriages are "failures", and Lil suffers from episodes of depression when promising babies don't live and when ordinary ones survive. From a patriarchal perspective, deviant motherhood is the source of strong anxieties about the evolution of humankind; many illustrations can be found in Shakespeare's plays­the quintessential patriarchal canon. One thinks for example of Lady Macbeth's plea to Nature to alter her maternal function in act I, scene 51, or the representation of Lear's ambitious daughters as monsters, who can potentially breed more monsters: "If she [Regan] live long, and in the end meet the old course of death, women will all turn monsters" 2. Crystal Lil indeed turns into some sort of monster, as her body and mind become gradually damaged by drug use: blind and deaf, "Lillian Hinchcliff Binewski ­ Crystal Lil ­ is tall and thin. Her breasts hang in flaps at her waist but her carriage is still erect" (GL 13). This image of the decaying female body, thin, with sagging breasts, is reminiscent of the sexless grotesqueness of the old woman as represented in medieval vanities. In her introduction to the collection of essays entitled Freakery, Rosemarie Garland Thomson argues that the perspective on the freak has shifted with time "from wonder to error", and that in medieval times, "monstrous bodies appeared as sublime, merging the terrible with the wonderful, equalizing repulsion with attraction" (Thomson
3). I would argue that Dunn's novel is closer to the medieval approach to freaks than to today's fear and rejection of the "abnormal" body; because the novel is told from the point of view of freakish mothers, the gaze on the freak is loving, tender, as a mother's gaze on her child or a child's on his mother. This love is however a peculiar one, and is best defined by the title of the novel, which refers to a drawing by Miranda: [...] The darkness is ink and the eyes and teeth come out of the dark and the screaming chicken is bulging vainly away, caught as the teeth close tearing into exploding feathers and black blood behind its desperate skull. Drawn with a bullwhip at thirty paces. Quietly, in the white at the bottom, her penciled hand has scrawled "Geek love by M. Barker". (GL 29) The geek's embrace and kiss of death to the chicken stands for the curious blend of love and violence within the Binewski family. This curious form of love is first illustrated in the family's fetishism towards its deceased family members; babies who haven't been carried to term are treated almost the same as their living siblings­mainly as a source of profit: "The Binewski family shrine was a fifty-foot trailer with a door at each end and a one-dollar admission price. The sign over the entrance said `Mutant mystery' and in smaller letters, `a museum of nature's innovative art'. We called it `the chute'". (GL 52) "The chute" features the usual collection of two-headed calves, everything one could dream of in a cabinet of curiosities­and the Binewski fetuses: There were four who had been born dead: Clifford Maple, Janus, and the Fist. [...] Janus was always my favorite. He had a down of dark hair curling on his tiny scalp and a sweet sleeping face. His other head emerged on a short neck at
the base of his spine, equally round and perfect, with matching hair. [...] Lil always fussed over Maple, who looked like a big rumpled sponge. Maple had two eyes but they didn't relate to each other. Lil said Maple had no bones. She and Al had decided Maple was female because they couldn't find a penis. Lil also clicked and sighed over Clifford, who looked like a lasagna pan full of exposed organs with a monkey head attached. [...] The sign in the jar room was bolted to the wall and had its own spotlight. It was carefully calligraphed in brown letters on a cream background. "HUMAN" it said. "BORN OF NORMAL PARENTS". (GL 53-4) Apart from those dead babies, the Binewskis also carry around deceased ancestors, like Al's father: "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" (GL 7)3. This uncanny domestication of death of course reminds us of Nabokov's Mrs. Haze's attachment to and conversations with her late husband's ashes. There are also incestuous undertones in Oly's desire to mix all the ashes together in one "big battered loving cup", in this ultimate fusion of all the bodies. These dysfunctional family dynamics also amplify and echo those at work in Shakespeare's Tempest: both plots are built around a familial microcosm (the island and the carnival), and both explore different instances of deviance. If the Binewski children are products of Al's imagination, the stuff shaped to Al's fancy, to paraphrase Prospero's words at the end of the play4, they are also by-products of The Tempest: it is best
exemplified in Arty, whose body shape, deviant language and libido echo Caliban's. Given the imperialist context and the indications from the play-text5, Caliban can be easily pictured as a black man, one of those people captured in the colonies that were exhibited on European stages as curiosities along with disabled people during fairs. The exhibition of "exotic" men and women was very popular in Elizabethan times, and it grew increasingly popular with the expansion of colonization and the introduction of Darwin's theory of evolution6. On seeing Caliban for the first time, Trinculo's first impulse is to think of the profit he could draw from exhibiting such a creature: What have we here, a man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish: he smells like a fish [...] A strange fish! Were I in England now (as once I was) and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this monster make a man; any strange beats there makes a man. When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian. Legged like a man and his fins like arms! (TT II, 2, 24-33) By actually making Caliban's alter ego Arty an exhibited freak, Dunn fully exploits Caliban's freak show potential. Arty and Caliban also have linguistic deviance in common, since both profess a desire to part from the "traditional" use of language they have been taught by the white, normally shaped man. Arty's immoderate taste for curse words thus echoes Caliban's response to Prospero in act I, scene 2: "You taught me language, and my profit on't/Is I know how to curse" (TT, I, 2, 364-5). The seed of deviance found in other characters of Shakespeare's play has developed into full-blown deviance in Dunn's novel; it is the case with Chick­obviously modeled after Ariel­whose submission to Prospero/Al turns to criminality as Chick's telekinesis is exploited to rob
banks. It is also true for Miranda, who becomes obsessed with ugliness8 in Dunn's novel, whereas she was naively fascinated by beauty in Shakespeare's play. Dunn has also exploited and amplified Prospero's control and constant scrutiny over Miranda's sexuality9 and transposed it into Olympia's constant spying and stalking of her daughter. Dunn shed particular emphasis on Caliban/Arty, thus insisting on the most potentially deviant element of Shakespeare's play: in her novel, the freak is given power, and literally the ability to "people the world with Calibans"10, as Arty develops his cult, "Arturism", whose purpose is to free its disciples by ridding them of their limbs, thus creating a mass of limbless Arty-like creatures11. Deviant desire Sexual deviance is overwhelmingly present in Geek Love, in the incestuous relations between siblings12, or more generally with the idea developed throughout the novel of the manipulation and commodification of sex. The most striking example lies in the twins' decision to take on prostitution as a side job once they become aware of the fascination they have on men13. The deviant body is eroticized through the twins and the exhibition of exotic dancers with physical particularities in the Glass House, the strip club where Miranda works, which features the usual transsexuals, women with giant breasts, but also women with abnormally long pubic hair, or sporting tails like Miranda. Whether it is the body of a female freak or not, male desire for the female body is necessarily deviant, first because according to the Bible, a woman is nothing more than a by-product of man, made from Adam's rib and deviating from the original model­the male body. Male desire is also deviant because it is either directed to a freakish body, or it is
excessive, and becomes a source of social pressure for women. In Geek Love there is an obsession with dissociating the female body from male desire, either by controlling it­the Glass House dancers are after all out of reach, and the twins are in control of the carnal relations they have with men­or by subtracting desire altogether, by making the body unattractive. Beauty is seen as a burden by Arty and Miss Lick­a strange philanthropist who has schemed a no less strange feminist project to mutilate women into ugliness, in order to allow them to reach their full potential, from which they would have been distracted had they had the constant preoccupation to attract men. Freakishness thus becomes the way out, the solution to avoid constant preoccupations such as attractiveness and normalcy. The very idea of normalcy is questioned in Geek Love. For the freak, "norms" are not only deviant, but boring: "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" (GL 223). Ordinariness is anathema in the eyes of the freak, which challenges the immediate presumption that a freak would do anything to be "normal". Offering such a perspective is also ironic in an extremely normalizing society aiming at blending individuals together. In this type of society, the freak crystallizes all the anxieties about abnormality, as Thomson explains in her introduction: Because such bodies are rare, unique, material, and confounding of cultural categories, they function as magnets to which culture secures its anxieties, questions, and needs at any given moment. [...] A freak show's cultural work is to make the physical particularity of the freak into a hypervisible text against which the viewer's indistinguishable body fades into a seemingly neutral, tractable, and
invulnerable instrument of the autonomous will, suitable to the uniform abstract citizenry democracy institutes. (Thomson 2-10) In Dunn's novel, the micro-society of the freak show somehow breaks the isolation of the freak, who is now a curiosity among other curiosities, and who had to be as freaky as possible to be distinguishable from his peers. Moreover, this freakishness contaminates people who, outside the world of the freak show, would not necessarily be considered as freakish, like the redheads for example, who work for the circus and acquire an uncanny dimension in this association. As in Todd Browning's Freaks, the freaks form an independent social microcosm, with their own set of norms and values against which the "norm" world is contrasted and seen as freakish. In the context of the freak show, the hypervisible sign becomes the non-deformed body, as the mass of limbless arturians grows. The freak is no longer seen as somebody, or something, that will reassure the ordinary citizen and comfort him in his ordinariness, but as an escape from a society which pressures people­especially women­into being beautiful, into conforming to the norm. Becoming a freak, breaking free from the undistinguishable mass, is the ultimate way to be turned into an independent thinking self, literally to be reduced to a bodiless mind. Joining the circus and stepping out of mainstream society is then more than social deviance, it is a liberating act. Dunn provocatively sharpens this social deviance by having Ivy League students and other East Coast aristocrats such as Crystal Lil join the circus; the Binweski Fabulon has boys from Dartmouth or Princeton work as circus geeks during the holidays. Crystal Lil epitomizes the very strong clash between the pinnacle of social perfection and the world of circus freaks. There is something extremely uncanny in the contradictory
association of Lil's upper-class language and allure, and her belonging to the circus, as is particularly well shown in the passage describing her working as the geek: "I wore tatters, really, white because it shows the blood so well even in the dark of the pit." [...] "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." (GL 5-6) This sharp contrast makes it harder to find the locus of deviance, and to decide who, between the blue-blood geek and the circus freaks, are the deviant ones. The world of the freak show becomes attractive not only because of the freaks it displays, but because of the potential solace it offers. Renaissance fools­the ancestors of circus freaks­were also considered as comforting creatures, as is explained in Enid Welsford's study on The Fool­His Social and Literary History: "He is a man who falls below the average human
standard, but whose defects have been transformed into a source of delight, a mainspring of comedy, which has always been one of the great recreations of mankind, and particularly of civilized mankind" (Welsford 1). Because of their deformities, fools, buffoons and freaks all evolve in a liminal space, outside mainstream society: The court fool, however, causes amusement not merely by absurd gluttony, merry gossip, or knavish tricks, but by mental deficiencies or physical deformities which deprive him both of rights and responsibilities and put him in the paradoxical position of virtual outlawry combined with utter dependence on the support of the social group to which he belongs. (Welsford 55) This liminality, which grants them greater liberty and frees them from the rules of society, becomes attractive to "norms": The fat woman surfaced at Arty's last, hottest show of the day. [...] "You, darling", said Arty, and the feel of "darling" rose up through her puffy ankles and through every buttock in the bleachers. The crowd sighed. The fat woman sobbed. "You feel ugly, don't you, sweetheart?" and "ugly" and "sweetheart" thrummed the crowd, and they all gasped and she wasn't the only one nodding. "You've tried everything, haven't you?" [...] "Pills, shots, hypnosis, diets, exercise. Everything. Because you want to be beautiful?" [...] "Because you think if you were beautiful, you would be happy?" [...] "Because people would love you if you were beautiful?" [...] "Or is it people not loving you that makes you unhappy? If they don't love you then it must mean there's something wrong with you. [...] You poor baby. You poor, poor baby."
The place was full of poor babies. They all sighed with tender sympathy for themselves. [...] "You just want to know that you're all right. [...] So, let's get the truth here! You don't want to stop eating! You love to eat! You don't want to be thin! You don't want to be beautiful! All you really want is to know that you're all right! [...] Can you be happy with the movies and the ads and the clothes in the stores and the doctors and the eyes as you walk down the street all telling you there's something wrong with you? No. You can't. You cannot be happy. Because, you poor darling baby, you believe them... Now, girl, I want you to look at me and tell me, what do you want? [...] She screamed, "I want to be like you are!" (GL 177-8) Ironically, a strange reversal of roles occurs in the novel, since the "norms" thus become a source of profit for the freak, Arty, who makes them pay a lot of money to have their limbs surgically removed by the circus' doctor. More generally, the notions of normalcy and freakishness are perpetually inverted and challenged throughout the book. The association of an Elizabethan play with the world of the carnival also participates in this constant challenging of what was, is, or will be "normal" or freakish. In her study Women's Revisions of Shakespeare, Marianne Novy underlines the particular bond between Shakespeare and women writers, and especially the impact of the representation of Shakespeare as an "outsider"14 (Novy 2); while he became, for their male counterparts, the absolute model, generating a great deal of "anxiety of influence", to use Bloomian terms, Shakespeare remained a great inspiration for women writers, who have often revisited his work very daringly. Dunn's Geek Love is
no exception, since it draws upon The Tempest's most potentially deviant traits and exploits them to the extreme, questioning them at the same time and putting them into a modern perspective­thus raising questions on what is potentially freakish in a canonical literary work.
Works cited primary sources Dunn, Katherine. Geek Love. New York: Vintage, 1989. Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Virginia Mason Vaughan & Alden T. Vaughan. London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2006. secondary sources Garland Thomson, Rosemarie, ed. Freakery, Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York UP, 1996. Novy, Marianne, ed. Women's Revisions of Shakespeare; On the Responses of Dickinson, Woolf, Rich, HD, George Eliot and Others. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth, in The Oxford Shakespeare, second edition. Ed. Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005, 969-993. -------------------------- King Lear, in The Oxford Shakespeare, second edition. Ed. Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005, 909-941 (Quarto text), 1153-1184 (Folio text). Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady, Women, Madness and English Culture. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985. Welsford, Enid. The Fool, His Social and Literary History. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1966. Wilson, Daniel. Caliban: The Missing Link. London: Macmillan, 1873.
Notes 1 "Come to my woman's breasts, and take my milk for gall" (Shakespeare, Macbeth I, 5, 46-7). 2 Shakespeare, KL, III, 7, 98-100; this quotation is from the Quarto text, which insists more on the monstrosity of Lear's eldest daughters than the Folio text does. 3 Oly also requests this in her will: Yet I hope that someday you'll come to collect us all from the shelves of the vault. Take down Arty and Chick and Papa and the twins, and all that's left of the jar kin, and by then, Lily and me. Open our metal jars and pour all the Binewski dust together into that big battered loving cup that first held only grandpa B. Bolt us to the hood of your traveling machine and take us on the road again. (GL 348) 4 "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep" (TT, IV, 1, 156-8). 5 The Physical description of Caliban is as vague as the play's geographical location; the play-text indicates that Caliban's mother Sycorax is North-African, more specifically from Algiers (I, 2, 261), which is, along with his resembling a fish, one of the few clues given to the spectator on Caliban's skin color and general appearance. Bearing in mind the British Colonial expansion to the New World, the audience could have easily pictured him as an Indian, a Black African, or any other strange man-beast recalling the creatures described in the numerous travel narratives published at the time.
6 With the influence of Darwin's theory of evolution, freak shows started exhibiting "missing links" captured in the colonies and presented as the "missing link" between men and monkeys; the most famous "missing link" exhibition is probably P. T. Barnum's "What is it?" in 1860. Caliban was then considered as the first instance of this "missing link"­this argument was notably developed in Daniel Wilson's Caliban: The Missing Link, published in 1873. 8 Miranda is portrayed as an aspiring medical illustrator, with a strong taste for deformity. 9 A good illustration of this could be found in act V, scene 1, when Prospero lifts a curtain and exposes Miranda and Ferdinand playing chess. 10 "Would't had been done; / Thou didst prevent me, I had peopled else / This isle with Calibans" (TT, I, 2, 350-2). 11 The members of the cult are called "Arturians". 12 The Binewski sisters are all in love with their brother Arty, especially Oly, who eventually gets Chick to impregnate her with Arty's sperm through telekinesis. 13 "We can send out flyers. Put it up in lights, `The exquisite convenience of two women with one cunt'" (GL 205). 14 Novy thus comments on Shakespeare's "deviations from the learned practice of art" (3) and from the literary canon of his time: In the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century, before Shakespeare was enshrined in the literary canon, he had a cultural image as an outsider to many established institutions. He lacked University Education; he wrote in the popular form of the drama, rather than the most prestigious form of the epic; he broke many of the rules of dramatic construction favored by literary critics. If he wrote
well ­ a debatable question ­ it was because of gifts of Nature, not of Art. There are good historical reasons why women writers, and even women readers, might feel analogously outside literary institutions and might take this Shakespeare as a model who showed that they could succeed anyway (Novy 2-3). We could also note that, while Shakespeare was indeed "enshrined in the literary canon" in the nineteenth Century, he remained controversial ­ not only because of the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy sparked by Delia Bacon, but mainly because his works were deemed too bawdy and inappropriate for female readers, whose sole access to the plays were often simplified and expunged versions such as Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare. Dunn's work fully capitalizes on Shakespeare's dual status as both a canonical and controversial author.

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