Katherine Dunn, Author
From The Breakfast Club Confession Series
Admirations from a Gate Guard of the Cult of John Hughes
In 1989, Geek Love was a finalist for the National Book Award. It was a finalist along with Billy Bathgate, Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and The Joy Luck Club. I’ve read all of these books, and in addition to Geek Love, I have a candlelit corner in my soul where the Mambo Kings still play on. The winner for the National Book Award in 1989 was Spartina by John Casey, a coming of age tale of a man in the middle of his life. Miraculously, I’ve never read this book, but it must have been something to win over such a gilded-library shelf of long-lived novels.
I wonder how Katherine Dunn, the author of Geek Love felt, when they announced the award. Was she disappointed? Did she turn the other cheek? Or did she take the high road and was just happy to be nominated.
I know on the occasions when I’ve been in her position, wearing a tuxedo, sitting among a crowd of other authors, bad chicken and wine coating my eager prayers as I wait for the speaker behind the microphone to call out my name that I’ve been emotionally and mentally tugged in both directions. While part of me is genuinely happy for the other writers, another part of me that is equally as loud has a well of disappointment that runs all the way to my core. The first time this happened I was sitting in Burbank with Director Mick Garris on my right, my wife on my left, and several writer friends around the table, who all seemed to be staring at me the moment my name wasn’t read. I felt the heat of their gazes and fought my face’s desire to tighten. It was a horrible moment, but one that was replaced later by a comment from another writer who said, “You didn’t win, Weston, but I’m going to remember your story for a long long time.” I’ve thought about that statement every day since. Sure awards are great, but isn’t the goal of every writer to create something with enough life that it lives on past the first reading?
Geek Love lives on for me. At that moment when her name wasn’t announced, I wish I could have been there for Katherine to say the same thing to her that was said to me. “You didn’t win, Katherine, but I’m going to remember your story for a long long time.” But my hubris overtakes me. I’m deadly sure that someone already told her this.
So what was it about Geek Love that so turned me on?
Perhaps when I read it had a lot to do with my feelings towards the book. I was recently divorced and had just started writing. I found the book in my mother’s library, perched in the attic of a three story Victorian house on the hillside overlooking Deadwood, South Dakota. It was a dark and dusty space where one could lose oneself perusing the titles and sitting in the wide-armed easy chair my mother had selected and placed there just for that purpose. The title caught me first, then when I opened the book and began to read, the narrative held me.
No, it stunned me.
The idea that the plot would surround a family of carnival freaks who intentionally genetically mutated their children was beyond anything I had ever previously read. Additionally, Katherine’s narrator, Arty, creates his own religious cult wherein followers sacrifice their own body parts to show their devotion. Geek Love is such a morose and visceral staring-match at the lowest levels of the human condition that it transcended itself into high art. For amidst the pain, the suffering, the unholy mutations, and the almost bestial desire to be different, there are truisms regarding what it really is to be human.
Like in the Cult of John Hughes, where humanity exists exponentially, I was reminded of the character Watts from Some Kind of Wonderful played by a spike-haired Mary Stuart Masterson. The movie opens with her drum beats, as we are introduced to the cast. But it is the iconic image of her banging almost painfully against the drum set that has always stayed in my mind. She’s a pre-punk tomboy who has never really thought of herself as a girl, yet it is in the discovery of her own beauty that she becomes a full-fledged character. Her drumming has always served as my own internal beat of not belonging and the frustrations of not knowing how to change.
Not that Watts is anything like the evil Arty, or his Dr. Moreau-like parents. To me she represents the eternal need to find and own an identity. Growing up in the COJH (Cult of John Hughes), I share her character’s global angst, acknowledging that I wasn’t anything like I was supposed to be, and didn’t know how to be what everyone wanted me to be. And I wouldn’t until much later in life.
Publishers Weekly agrees with me, further pointing out that Geek Love is a “raw, shocking view of the human condition, a glimpse of the tormented people who live on the fringe, makes readers confront the dark, mad elements in every society.” You see, Geek Love is not just about individual identity. It’s about how people view others, and in that viewing, attempt to align them into some preconceived notion of what should be. Katherine Dunne used the carnival side-show as the gestalt for the dispossessed, handicapped and malformed, providing the reader a locus for ill attention.
At first I found myself shocked at the ugliness of the book’s characters. Arty, better known as Aqua Boy, was born with flippers. Electra and Iphigenia are conjoined Siamese twins. Fortunato appears apologetically unmarred, but turns out to have telepathic powers, making him just weird enough to not get kicked out of the family, who holds its relationship with mutation with greater reverence than any bloodline. And the mother and father of this cheerful bunch of monsters? What about them? They created and followed a program of genetic mutation on their offspring, espousing the core philosophy of child rearing found in the missing chapter of the Doctor Spock book which poses the question “what greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?”
Because of the physical manifestations of their mutations, when I began reading Geek Love, the characters were completely alien to me. They might as well have been the offspring of monsters. Yet each of them had a colossal desire to be loved and that desire worked on me throughout the narrative. Performing to them was more than a way to earn money, it was a way to connect. For isn’t it true that the way we evaluate our own humanity or humanness s is through the eyes of others? And no one had the desire to connect more than Arty who created a religion around his own deformities.
As I read Geek Love, I grew to realize that my failure to understand the emotional nuances and needs of the characters was much like Principal Vernon’s inability to understand the emotional needs of his students. In The Breakfast Club, although everyone fell into a stereotype, they were at once different and the same. Old Dick Vernon couldn’t understand this and continues life to this day as a one-dimensional archetype of societal ambivalence.
If you remember the movie, a group of high school students are locked in the library of Shermer High School by the principal and told that they had to come up with an essay before they could leave at the end of the day. They decided to write a letter, and in the version of the letter produced at the end of the movie, the students indicted Principal Vernon by stating “you see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions.”
I was guilty of that in Geek Love. I fell victim to Katherine’s literary strategy. I saw the freaks and geeks and took them for face value, assuming the mantle of Vernon and believing that that was all they were. I suppose it is part of our true nature as human beings to believe this. But by allowing myself to see them for who they wanted to be, rather than who I thought they should be, I ended up learning more about humanity in this one book than I have in library shelves of others. I could argue that I learned how to do this at the foot of my parents, or on my grandfather’s knee. They were and are great human beings whose desire to teach me to accept everyone forever shaped me. But just as we know that repetition is the key to good learning, I must offer John Hughes considerable thanks for providing me constant and entertaining instruction from his platoon of sparkly 1980s teenagers, who all became zeitgeist zen masters to my sometimes crippling natural desire to expect the universe to conform to my own desires.
I read Geek Love ten years ago sitting in my mother’s attic, feeling a little sorry for myself, not knowing completely who I was. It’s an interesting irony that Katherine’s mutations went a long way to making me feel whole and repairing the damage to my psyche caused by my own crashes along the road of life. I think of the book often. It is one of those books that when it is mentioned, I can’t help but smile as I energetically detail my own appreciation for the narrative and the raw power of the characterizations. I have not read it again, but I do occasionally pick it from my shelf and fondle it, maybe reading a few words here and there, or reconnecting with my lost friends inside.
Recently I received a copy of Paris Review (issue 193) and was exceptionally pleased to read a new story by Katherine. Called “Rhonda Discovers Art,” it begins with as powerful a characterization as Katherine is capable of producing. In a single sentence she deftly conveys many thoughts and ideas, merely by describing a character. “Tweezer Painton was a burly ten-year-old with a glower built into his square mug.” Because of my John Hughes cultural inculcation, I immediately thought of Elias Koteas’ character Duncan in Some Kind of Wonderful. Although he’s appeared in a hundred other roles, most convincingly as Thomas Dagot, unwitting knower of God’s truths in The Prophecy, I’ll always remember him as the skinhead bully with the square jaw and combat boots; an iconic image most recently recreated in his inglorious role as the pyromaniacal killer, Laeddis, in Scorcese’s Shutter Island. Of course the narrator of Dunne’s story is the Rhonda from the title, and it is Tweezer that she very quickly murders.
This is not the end of the story, but the beginning. This action creates within the title character the ability to do things that need to be doing. After all, Tweezer needed to be killed. In what “Rhonda called the Montessori moment, or the great gestalt switcheroo,” she discovers something else that needs to be done. A performance artist comes to town. A cross between Robert Mapplethorpe, Iggy Pop and Evel Kneivel, the artist places himself naked in a bathtub filled with water with a 20,000 volt circuit attached and a lever placed so that anyone could press it. The artist called his piece “Stir Fry” and was another in a long line of offensive creations he called art.
Tweezer had been offensive to everyone at school. There was no one he hadn’t picked on and his very existence was an anathema to student happiness. Rhonda knew that Tweezer needed to be killed and handled it. She was never caught. Now, she saw another person like Tweezer, whose assaults, although on the senses, were nonetheless violent.
“Rhonda Discovers Art” is very much like Geek Love in that all the characters are scarred. Many authors begin with normal characters, scar them within the narrative, then bring them back with a journey. But not Katherine. She scars her characters and unabashedly allows them to play upon the page, allowing them to use their scars as scythes, with which they sweep aside those in front of them who are either unwilling, or unable to get out of the way.
It’s an interesting literary philosophy. John Hughes used much the same techniques, but instead of mutated or scarred characters, he used teenagers. Of course I could argue that teenagers by their very physical and emotional presence are indeed scarred mutations of a reality we all seek to escape, but that might be too cliché. Let me just conclude by pointing out that the great lights of popular culture discover, master and use methods to provide the observer catharsis of sorts. In the case of John Hughes and Katherine Dunne, they created scarred characters, embraced their faults, and used them to demonstrate that amidst all the scars and mutations, the essence of the characters are as human as you and I.
No matter how horrific they seemed to be.