Book Review: Geek Love

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Me? You know what they do with people like me? Brick walls, six-bed wards, two diapers a day and a visit from a mothball Santa at Christmas! I’ve got nothing. The twins are true freaks. Chick is a miracle. Me? I’m just an industrial accident! But I made it into something–me! I have to work and think to do it. And don’t forget, I was the first keeper. I’m the oldest, the son, the Binewski! This whole show is mine, the whole family. Papa was the oldest and he got the show and Grandpa’s ashes. Before me the whole place was falling apart. I’m the one who got us back on the road. When Papa goes it’ll be me.

Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn

Despite the title, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love isn’t the tale of a tragic romance between two misunderstood teens in the style of John Green. Instead, “geek” refers to carnival performers, those who make their living by showcasing wild and sometimes disgusting acts.

The narrator of Geek Love is Olympia “Oly” Binewksi, born into a family where the mother, Lil, willingly exposes herself to radiation in an attempt to genetically modify her children to create more performers for the carnival. In addition to Oly, who is  a bald, albino dwarf, the Binewski clan includes Arty, a boy with flippers for hands and feet; Iphy and Elly, piano-playing Siamese twins; and Chick, physically unremarkable but with telekinetic powers. The story details Oly’s past and present: her obsession with her charismatic brother Arty, the origins of her daughter Miranda, and the deteriorating relationships between her siblings and herself.

I first picked up Geek Love after a coworker recommended it to me. The premise sounded unique and undeniably intriguing. But for some reason, it took me roughly a month to get through this book, even though it was only around 350 pages long. Admittedly, I was busy this month, but still. The book’s meandering plot and dense prose made it a difficult read at times, even though the characters themselves were immensely entertaining.

I’ve seen online reviews that complain that all the characters (excepting Chick) are completely selfish and therefore unsympathetic. I didn’t find this to be the case. Many of the characters show kindness, albeit misguided, and I found this to be realistic: in this cutthroat, messed up family, it only seemed real that the siblings would constantly be trying to outdo each other to garner more love and, ultimately, more money, from the showgoers and their parents. As it is in many families, carnival or not.

What I found most interesting about Geek Love is its subversion of the usual value system. In the Binewski family, children who are born normal (snarkily referred to as “norms”) are abandoned, while those with physical deformities are kept and cherished. Oly, despite being a bald, albino dwarf, is the least valuable child because her gifts don’t draw crowds the way that Arty and the twins do. Oly becomes a dutiful attendant to Arty and a passive observer to most of the exciting events that happen, rather than an active player. The book made me rethink how I think about standards for what is considered attractive, or even normal. Arty, despite his malicious and self-serving actions, was the most interesting character in the novel and served to provide key insights into the relationship between the Binewskis and the norms.

YES OR NO?: I’m still undecided whether I like this book. I had to force myself to finish it, and I felt that the author could have done more with the unique characters and setting she devised, perhaps by using a more focused plot. I’d recommend you try reading an excerpt to see if this book is for you, since the prose can get quite heavy. Definitely not a light read!

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Book Review: The Namesake

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For his father had a point; the only person who didn’t take Gogol seriously, the only person who tormented him, the only person chronically aware of and afflicted by the embarrassment of his name, the only person who constantly questioned it and wished it were otherwise, was Gogol. And yet he’d continued, saying that they should be glad, that his official name would be Bengali, not Russian.

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

In some ways, there’s nothing at all remarkable about Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli, the protagonist of The Namesake, or his story. The firstborn child of Bengali immigrants, Gogol is fairly typical: slightly ashamed of his conservative parents and of what he considers a “backwards” culture, yet still comforted by and tied to his culture. The relationship that Gogol has with his parents, while representative of many similar relationships between immigrant parents and their American-born offspring, still feels like the usual combination of guilt, obligation, and love common to any parent-child relationship.

You could argue that what makes The Namesake unique in comparison to the plethora of other novels about the immigrant experience is in the novel’s title itself: Gogol’s unusual name. Named after Nikolai Gogol, whose collection of short stories Gogol’s father credits with saving his life, Gogol’s name, while not a traditional Bengali name, is an overt symbol of his embarrassment at his inability to completely embody the Americanness that he feels he is entitled to. While I (blessed with a deceptively spelled name that 90% of people mispronounce on the first try) sympathized with Gogol’s pain at his given name, I didn’t find this to be the most interesting part of the novel.

At times, the plot of the novel is plodding. After all, the novel begins with the circumstances of Gogol’s birth and ends with Gogol, now dubbed Nikhil, in his thirties, with his various milestones and relationships described in impressively excruciating detail. There were parts I skimmed, especially those dedicated to non-central characters that I simply was not interested in.

But what makes this novel special, and beautiful, is the language. Lahiri’s prose is quietly determined to engage and interest the reader even in the rather mundane details of the Gangulis’ initial landlords upon their arrival in the U.S., the dozens of Bengali families and acquaintances, the numerous parties thrown by the Gangulis to celebrate birthdays, graduations, Christmases. With some novels, you can tell that each detail is carefully crafted by the author to contribute to the novel’s atmosphere or message, and this is one of them. While certain moments and Gogol’s relationships with the various women in his life are clearly meant to portray the contrast between American and Bengali culture, none of these situations felt forced. They were all incredibly realistic, so much so that I could see some of Gogol’s traits in my friends, my acquaintances, and myself. Despite being from a different culture, I find that often, as an immigrant, I identify with any immigrant story, especially when told as engrossingly as in The Namesake. I found myself enchanted by the way even simple everyday things were described in loving, enlightening detail.

YES OR NO?: YES. Gogol/Nikhil’s life is one that every reader can identify with, whether or not they are the child of immigrants, immigrants themselves, or neither. The only (small) issue I had with the novel was the lack of focus on the characterization of Sonia, Nikhil’s younger sister. Although I realize that Gogol is the center of the novel, I thought that the lack of information on Sonia, other than when necessitated by the plot, was a weak point of the narration. Other than that, though, I surprised myself by speeding through this book within a day.