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The Summer of Katya by Trevanian – Thriller in the Basque country

August 25, 2019 10 comments

The Summer of Katya by Trevanian (1983) French title: L’été de Katya. Translated by Emmanuèle de Lesseps.

But despite the physical and emotional parallels between today and that distant summer, I find it difficult to express my memories lucidly. The problem is not in the remembering; it is in the recording; for a while I recall each note clearly, they play a false melody when I string them together. And it is not only the intervening years that distort the sounds and images; it is the fact that the events occurred on the other side of the Great War, beyond the gulf of experience and pain that separate two centuries, two cultures. Those of us whose lives are draped across that war find their youths deposited on the shore of a receding, almost alien, continent where life was lived at a different tempo and, more important, in a different timbre. The things we did and said, our motives and methods, had different implications from those they now have; therefore, it is possible for a description of those things to be completely accurate without being at all truthful.

When the narrator of The Summer of Katya by Trevanian says this, we are in August 1938. Dr Jean-Marc Montjean is 45 as he recalls his summer of 1914, just before the Great War started.

In 1914, he’s 21 and he’s back in the French Basque country after studying medicine in Paris. Dr Gros took him in as assistant to his clinic where he specializes in the “discomforts” associated with menopause. Jean-Marc is skeptical about the clinic’s patients, doesn’t hide it from Dr Gros but he took him in anyway.

Jean-Marc meets the Treville when Katya comes into the village to fetch a doctor because her brother Paul hurt his shoulder. They are twins and look very much alike. They live with their father in a remote rented house. Their father is buried in books, a history buff who only comes out of his office from time to time.

Jean-Marc is soon fascinated by Katya and strikes an odd friendship with Paul. The young man seems to play a game of push-and-pull with him, sometimes letting him in as a friend and sometimes roughly pushing him away. Katya is the same, apparently torn between going further with him and rejecting him for reasons he has yet to discover. Jean-Marc is on a constant roller-coaster of emotions with these two. Paul and Katya have warned him off: their father must not think there is any kind of love relationship between Katya and Jean-Marc. Why?

A feeling of unease rapidly invades the reader’s mind. Why are the Treville in Salies-Les-Bains? What are they hiding from? What scandal pushed them to flee from Paris? Why did Katya decided to change her name from Hortense to Katya? They share a heavy burden, but what is it?

Paul keeps telling Jean-Marc that he must not fall in love with Katya but you can’t avoid falling in love. The atmosphere thickens and the reader knows from the start that there will be no happy ending, we just wait for the drama to unfold before our eyes.

Besides the story between the protagonists and the thriller side of the book, The Summer of Katya is a fine piece of literature. Trevanian has lived in the French Basque country for a while and you can feel it in the descriptions of Salies-les-Bains, of the countryside and the village feast the Treville and Jean-Marc attend. As you heard it in the quote before, his language has a melancholic musicality. Jean-Marc never married after that summer, the one of Katya, the last one of his youth, before History hit him with the Great War and he had to recover from the aftermath of Katya. It was the end of a civilization and the end of his world.

I had never read any book by Trevanian before this one. I understand that The Summer of Katya is different from his other novels and that his most famous one is Shibumi. Has anyone read him before?

Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun – Not everyone can be Agatha Christie

August 4, 2019 4 comments

Murder chez Proust. A mystery by Estelle Monbrun (1994) Original French title: Meurtre chez Tante Léonie

If you’ve ever read Proust, you know all about Aunt Léonie, Combray, Swann’s Way and the Guermantes Way. Murder chez Proust by Estelle Monbrun is set in Illiers, the village that inspired Combray and where Proust’s aunt used to live. My recent visit to the Hôtel Littéraire Le Swann prompted me to pick up this cozy crime novel.

When the book opens, the Proust Association is about to welcome Proust aficionados in Illiers for a tourism & literature stay. Unfortunately, Emilienne, the cleaning lady in charge of Aunt Léonie’s house finds Mrs Bertrand-Verdon, the president of the Proust Association, murdered. As we get acquainted with the VIPs of the conference, we realize that each of them has a good reason to dislike Mrs Bertrand-Verdon.

Her secretary, Gisèle Dambert, is writing her PhD thesis about Proust. She inherited of a treasure, Proust’s famous 1905 notebooks that his governess Céleste Albaret had to destroy. Gisèle had informed Mrs Bertrand-Verdon of this important discovery and now regrets it.

Professor Verdaillon, Gisèle’s PhD supervisor is about to publish a complete edition of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. What would be the value of this edition is the 1905 notebooks were to reappear? M. Desforges works for the publisher who will market this edition. He used to be Mrs Bertrand-Verdon’s lover and his credibility has faded away recently. He can’t afford this edition to be a failure. M. de Chareilles was about to marry Mrs Bertrand-Verdon. He’s a traditional nobleman and it’s not certain that he knows all about his fiancée’s background. Professor Rainsford is an American academics who has been in contact with Mrs Bertrand-Verdon too. He seems to have things to hide as well.

All the important people of this literary microcosm have something to hide or a good reason to fear or dislike the victim. She was quite manipulative and had the upper hand on their future. So who did it? Commissaire Jean-Pierre Foucheroux and Inspector Leila Djemani are in charge of the investigation.

Estelle Monbrun is the penname of Elyane Dezon-Jones, a teacher of contemporary French literature in the USA. (Barnard College and Washington University in St Louis) She’s a specialist of Proust and Marguerite Yourcenar. Murder chez Proust will be nice for Proust nuts. It’s full of literary nudges about In Search of Lost Time and Proust’s biography. It’s fun to track them in the text.

Estelle Monbrun also knows how to write and how to describe the quiet French countryside. Her book sounds timeless. If you put aside the Proustian details, the village and the villagers reminded me of St Mary Mead. The best characters are the police, with a commissaire who limps after an accident and mourns his wife and a female inspector of North African origins who has a lot to prove to herself.

BUT. I’m sure you were waiting for the but. Even if Estelle Monbrun ticks all the right boxes to write an Agatha-Christie branded whodunnit, it doesn’t work. It’s bland like a poorly executed imitation.

This is where you see that crime fiction is a noble genre too. You may know how to write, how to assemble plausible details and use a believable setting for a cozy crime, it’s not enough. You need talent to create a story with interesting police characters, with characters that feel like flesh-and-blood people and with actions that are believable.

Back to Michael Connelly and how I thought that The Black Echo was perfectly executed. Connelly has the craft to do that, and even if he’s not a literary writer the way Chandler is, he has a huge talent as a storyteller. Here, the ingredients are there on paper but Estelle Monbrun didn’t manage to cook a good story. Storytelling is a talent per se and excellent crime fiction is an art as difficult to handle as more literary genres.

A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique – Life of a lonely boy in Lima in the 1950s

July 31, 2019 4 comments

A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique (1972) French title: Le monde de Julius. Translated from the Spanish (Peru) by Albert Bensoussan.

A World For Julius by Alfredo Bryce-Echenique was our Book Club choice for July. It is the second book by Bryce-Echenide that I’ve read. The first one was Tarzan’s TonsillitisAlfredo Bryce-Echenique was born in 1939 in Lima, Peru. Here’s what Wikipedia says about his upbringing:

Bryce was born to a Peruvian family of upper class, related to the Scottish-Peruvian businessman John Weddle Bryce (1817 in Edinburgh – 9 March 1888), ancestor of the Marquesses of Milford-Haven and of the Duchesses of Abercon and Westminster. He was the third son and the fourth of the five children of the banker Francisco Bryce Arróspide and his wife, Elena Echenique Basombrío, granddaughter of the former President José Rufino Echenique. Bryce studied elementary education at Inmaculado Corazón school, and high school at Santa María school and Saint Paul’s College, a British boarding school for boys in Lima.

These biographical elements are important to know because the Julius of A World For Julius seems to be young Alfredo’s alter ego.

Set in Lima in the 1950s (I think), A World For Julius relates six years in Julius’s childhood. When the book opens, he’s five years old. His father is dead, he lives with his mother Susan, his older brothers Santiago and Roberto (Bobby) and his sister Cinthia. They belong to a very rich family, live in a mansion in Lima, surrounded by servants. Cinthia and Julius are very close and her untimely death will leave a hole in his life.

Cinthia dies abroad, in Boston, where her family brought her to attempt a last medical treatment. I understood she died of tuberculosis. Susan’s reaction to her daughter’s death is to go on a trip in Europe with her older sons, her friend Juan Lucas and thus leaves Julius behind in the servants’ care. When she comes back, she’s married to Juan Lucas.

A World For Julius depicts the solitary life of a sensitive child who has a lot of imagination. His mother is not motherly and only the servants seem to really care about him. The whole book is based upon three recurring pillars: Juan Lucas and Susan’s socialite life, and later Santiago’s and Bobby’s, Julius’s life in school and life in the servants’ quarters.

Juan Lucas only cares about himself, enjoys playing golf, doing business and having Susan with him all the time. He’s extremely wealthy, takes a lot of care about his appearance, doesn’t want to age. He loves corrida, cocktail parties and eating at restaurants. He’s not a bad man, but he likes things to go his way. He married Susan and tries not to think to much about the kids she brought with her. He’s not a family man and doesn’t intend to behave like a father. Nothing he likes is compatible with a steady family life. He has no interest in the boys’ education and treats Santiago and Bobby more as a big brother than as a parent. He doesn’t know how to interact with Julius. The boy is too sensitive, he likes playing the piano, he’s quiet, not interested in sports, everything Juan Lucas is not.

Susan is beyond pretty and spoiled. Everyone forgives her everything since she’s polite, sophisticated and so lovely. She’s putty in Juan Lucas’s hands because she’s very much in love with him and too lazy to contradict him. It’s easier to go with the flow and indulge him than push for her own wishes. She has almost no motherly instincts. Going to Julius’s end-of-year school party is a torture, she forgets to buy presents for his birthday, kisses him in passing but never really cares about what’s going on with his life. She asks no questions about school and discovers at the end of the year that he’s first in class.

Santiago and Bobby don’t care about their brother either.

Poor Julius is left on his own and only receives affection from the servants. The team who handles the household is composed of Vilma the nanny who takes care of Julius, Nilda the cook, Carlos the driver, Celso and Daniel who do various tasks in the house. They are a tightknit group with their own lives and interactions.

Julius stands at the intersection of two worlds: he doesn’t belong to his parents’ socialite world because he’s too young and not really interested in it and by class, he doesn’t belong to the servants’ world, even if that’s where he prefers to be.

Julius grows up on his own. Sometimes his mother remembers his existence and bestows a short-lived affection and a few hugs. He seeks the attention of people from lower social classes, the school bus driver, construction workers, the house servants and beggars he sees on the street.

A World For Julius has lengthy descriptions of parties among the upper classes in Lima. I had trouble figuring out when it was set but from a few hints here and there, I gathered it was in the 1950s. We see Julius in school with classic children drama around fights, candies and interactions with the nuns. And we follow the servants’ stories at the mansion and outside of it.

A World For Julius is obviously autobiographical. It is a vibrant picture of Lima at the time but also a moving portrait of a lonely boy who can’t find his place in a house where people who should take care of him don’t. Children don’t deserve vapid and neglectful mothers. He was lucky to have caring nannies and a friendly driver.

The power of A World For Julius resides in its inventive narration. It’s told by an omniscient narrator who sounds like an African griot. It’s in spoken language, full of creative descriptions of people with nicknames to place them. It uses repetitions to help the reader remember the characters. It has a certain rhythm that keeps you reading.

Julius is an attaching character and my heart went out for this little boy who doesn’t get the affection he needs to grow up confident and certain of his place in the world.

Highly recommended.

This is my contribution to Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu.

 

The Black Echo by Michael Connelly – Perfectly executed

July 29, 2019 9 comments

The Black Echo by Michael Connelly (1992) French title: Les égoûts de Los Angeles.

Michael Connelly was the star at Quais du Polar this year. I attended two events where he was a guest star, a film about LA and Connelly’s writing and a wonderful jazz & literature session with him and James Sallis. I saw him on the street, simply having a sandwich at the terrace of a bakery. I liked his attitude, he didn’t behave like he was a big deal and yet he is, if you consider the number of books he has sold. It made me want to read one of his books and I picked The Black Echo, the first opus of his famous Harry Bosch series.

Harry Bosch is a detective on the LAPD homicide team and he has just been demoted. The Internal Affairs are after him. When he and his partner are sent on a scene where a dead body was found, he’s the only one not to dismiss this death as an overdose. Something doesn’t sit well with him. And then he realizes that he knew the victim. It’s Billy Meadows, a fellow veteran who fought alongside him in the Vietnam War. There is no way Harry will let this case alone, despite all the roadblocks on the path: he has enemies in the LAPD and he crosses the FBI’s path. It’ll be a dangerous case for Harry’s career and even physical integrity.

I wasn’t sure that I’d like Connelly’s books but I did. Harry Bosch is an attaching character and The Black Echo is polished debut novel. Bosch is fully formed, believable and Connelly’s knowledge of police procedure and LAPD’s ways is precious and accurate. Bosch’s quotidian sounds real, like here:

Two hours of typing and smoking and drinking bad coffee later, a bluish cloud hung near the ceiling lights over the homicide table and Bosch had completed the myriad forms that accompany a homicide investigation. He got up and made copies on the Xerox in the back hall.

The reader believes that Harry is a real detective, a maverick among his peers and that make him interesting. Details about the Vietnam War ring true too, a black echo was a soldier who went into tunnels, in search of Vietcong soldiers. Connelly doesn’t give useless information about the war but only the ones relevant for the plot and the reader’s understanding of Bosch’s past.

Connelly describes himself as a storyteller and that’s an accurate description. His prose is good, efficient. The Black Echo is an excellent page turner, I was eager to continue, to see how it would end. I liked Bosch and was totally engaged at his side during the story. It’s captivating and everything is well done: the LA setting, Bosch himself and his interactions with his colleagues, the atmosphere of the police investigation. It’s efficient, like Stephen King, only in a different genre.

Connelly is a wonderful and engaging writer but not an artist like other literary authors, which is not something he claims to be. From what I see in The Black Echo, the Bosch series is an excellent source of reliable, good and entertaining reads. We do need this kind of books because reading is above all a pleasure. And sometimes, literary books are interesting or challenging but not all that pleasurable.

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey – Eco-terrorist western

July 27, 2019 10 comments

The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (1975) French title: Le gang de la clé à molette. Translated by Jacques Mailhos.

This book, though fictional in form, is based strictly on historical fact. Everything in it is real or actually happened. And it all just began just one year from today. Edward Abbey. Wolf Hole, Arizona.

This cryptic quote by Edward Abbey is the first thing you read when you open The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey (1927-1989) was an American nature writer and an environmentalist. He related his experience as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Park in the 1960s in an autobiographical book, Désert solitaire.

The Monkey Wrench Gang is set in the desert regions of the American southwest. Think Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It was published in 1975 and remember that the city of Page was founded in 1957, the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado river was inaugurated in 1964 and that Lake Powell was a result of this dam. All these constructions are fresh in memories and make the news when Abbey wrote his novel. The area changes rapidly with the development of tourism, the construction of interstates and other huge works of engineering.

The Monkey Wrench Gang relates the fast-paced journey of four ill-assorted environmental activists. Or at least, that’s how we’d call them now. Dr Sarvis, Bonnie Abbzug, George Washington Hayduke and Seldom Seen Smith joined their forces to sabotage machines, bridges and constructions to slow down the roadwork and constructions sites in natural places. They can’t bear the scars that these human works do to the natural landscape.

But who are they and how did they form this revolutionary group?

Dr Sarvis, Doc, is a surgeon from Albuquerque. That’s his day job but at night, with the help of his girlfriend Bonnie Abbzug, he burns billboard along the highway because they spoil the view.

Bonnie is a Jewish young woman from the Bronx. She’s a feminist, exploring her sexuality freely and in rebellion against her upbringing. In other words, Abbzug is at war with society, with herself and with her family. She loves the adrenaline of their mission and she follows Doc around. She’s much younger than him, and their relationship suffers from it because he expects to be dumped at any moment. He introduced her to environmental sabotage and she found a cause to embrace in this fight against the system.

Despite their illegal activities, Doc and Abbzug remain active members of the society. Doc is still a surgeon, and his profession is profitable enough to fund his underground activities. He’s the banker of the operation and a closeted anarchist.

Cover of the original edition

Hayduke is a former Green Beret from the Vietnam war. He suffers from PTSD, his days in Vietnam haunt him. He’s well-trained and able to survive in difficult conditions. He knows how to manipulate explosives, thanks to his time in the army. He knows all the tricks to make secret missions a success. But his temper is volatile, highly inflammable. He guzzles beer as if it were water. He loves firearms and carries an arsenal around. He despises all kind of authority. He’s an outsider, unpredictable and scares the others. He has nothing to lose and that makes him dangerous, even in the eyes of his accomplices. And he’s sexist and behaves like an oaf. He’s a solitary man who enjoys hiking, spending time in the wilderness.

Seldom Seen Smith is a Mormon. He lives in Utah and has three wives in different houses. They seldom see him, hence his nickname. He works as a tourist guide in the area and he knows it extremely well. Smith is grounded by his wives. He has homes he can go back to; his life is there in these mountains, in this desert and he has something to lose if things go wrong.

The three men have complementary skills: one can bring money, one knows the land like the back of his hand and the other has the organizational and technical knowledge to make their missions happen. Abbzug tags along but is still an active participant. She also has the classic role of the femme fatale.

The four of them met when Doc, Abzzug and Hayduke booked a tour with Smith. They share a common hatred for all the destructions of nature in the region; roads, dams and mines are their targets. This group of misfits finds a common ground in their protest against the destruction of nature to build dams, exploit the soil or drive faster on an autobahn instead of using the highway 66. This team who sometimes struggles to work together engages into a dangerous run against the clock to destroy as many machines and roadworks as possible before they get caught. Their only limit is that no worker shall be injured or killed by their sabotage.

Abbey embarks us on a thrilling road trip with this quartet of self-made activists. The Monkey Wrench Gang has something of westerns, of pulp and of cartoons, which means that suspension of belief is needed to enjoy the ride. Hayduke and Charlie Hardie, the character invented by Duane Swierczynski in the Charlie Hardie trilogy seem to have a connection somewhere in their family tree. They have mad survival skills, like in a Road Runner and Wild E. Coyote episode and they are running away from the law. In Abbey’s book, Bishop Love, the local law enforcement is the pursuant. He’s like a villain in a cartoon, a mafia godfather with a court of minions and a lot of means to track down our quartet of nature vigilantes.

Abbey knew the region very well and it shows in its gorgeous descriptions of the landscape. I’ve been in the area and although I remained on the touristy tracks, Abbey’s words brought back memories.

Instead of writing an essay or a pamphlet, he wrote this indescribable novel full of fervent denunciation of the irrevocable damages that mankind does to nature in the name of progress. And forty-four years later, see where it led us.

Abbey managed to write a revolutionary and yet playful book. It’s serious in its fight for the cause of wilderness against mankind’s greed and shameless destructions. It questions unbridled development and points out the damages that western civilization does to natural places. See below a photo of the collection Earth From Above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, it’s a coal mine in Arizona.

Mine de charbon à ciel ouvert, Arizona, Etats-Unis (32°21’ N – 111°12’ O).

The Monkey Wrench Gang was an influential book. Monkey wrenching became a term to describe that kind of sabotage. The founders of Earth First! Claim that Abbey was their model. It’s a revolutionary book, and typically American in the way that the characters relate to wilderness and are weary of governmental power.

It’s a book that stays with you for a long time after you’ve read it, probably even more these days, with all the state of our planet. Abbey loved this region and wanted to fight for it. He loved it so much that he asked to be buried in the desert and nobody knows where his grave is. He’s back to the wilderness and thirty years after his death, his books are still relevant and fun.

Highly recommended to anyone but especially to people who intend to visit the area. (Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon…)

Romain Gary enters La Pléiade

June 9, 2019 15 comments

I wasn’t about to write a billet about Romain Gary entering La Pléiade because, who wants to read another billet about my Gary addiction? And then I stumbled upon Le sens de ma vie in a bookstore, a transcription of an interview he gave to Radio Canada in 1980. I had to read it, now I want to write about La Pléiade and this interview.

On May 16th, Gallimard published the complete works of Romain Gary in their renowned collection La Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, better known as La Pléiade.  It is a very prestigious collection and it’s an honor for an author to “enter la Pléiade”. It’s a literary recognition for a writer’s work, a way to say that his/her books have a significance for the history of literature. The Pléiade catalogue is mostly composed of French writers but it’s also open to foreign authors, in bilingual editions or in French translations. If you want to browse through their catalogue, here’s the link to their website.

Romain Gary was a bit despised by the literary intelligentsia of his time. His French was too unorthodox for the conservative writers and he was Gaullist in a literary world dominated by communist trends. (Think about Sartre) Now, decades after his death, he enters the Pléiade, his books are read in school, always present in any decent bookstore and his pléiade edition makes the news. My favorite bookstore celebrated the event with a special wall display in the store, in addition to a full display in the shop window.

And near the cash register, I found Le sens de ma vie (The meaning of my life), an interview recorded a few months before Romain Gary killed himself. He comes back to the major times of his life, his youth and his mother, his time in the army during WWI, his time as a French diplomat and his time with the cinema industry. He started to write when he was nine and kept writing until he died. Books, writing and literature were his life companions. I didn’t discover anything major in this interview but it’s interesting to see what he puts forward and considers as worth mentioning.

In the last part, Le sens de ma vie, he closes the interview with his legacy:

Je trouve que c’est ce que j’ai fait de plus valable dans ma vie, c’est d’introduire dans tous mes livres, dans tout ce que j’ai écrit, cette passion de la féminité soit dans son incarnation charnelle et affective de la femme, soit dans son incarnation philosophique de l’éloge et de la défense de la faiblesse car les droits de l’homme ce n’est pas autre chose que la défense du droit à la faiblesse.

I think that the most valuable thing I did in my life was to include in all my books, in all my writing, my passion for femininity, either in its flesh-and-blood version – a woman or in its philosophical incarnation through the praise and defense of weakness, because human rights are nothing else than fighting for the right to be weak.

He believes that weakness is a strength because since you can’t rely on your force (muscles or power), you have to be inventive. He also thinks that tenderness, compassion and love are feminine values and virtues but he doesn’t mean that only women have them. I’m not sure that the feminine tag is necessary here but I respect his idea of promoting soft power against blind force.

He also talks about humor as a powerful knife against the crushing realities of life. I have mentioned this before because it is the heart of Gary’s work and a reader can’t understand his literature without having this key. He mentions the gentlemanly sense of humor of the British and has words for the powerful, virulent and tragic American humor of the Jewish NY literary movement. He refers to Saul Bellow, Singer and Malamud, writers I want to read too. And he mentions Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth and I thought “Ha! I knew it! He had to love Roth” Each time I read Roth I feel a kinship with Gary’s work, certainly coming from their common Jewish background. They both use humor as a self-defense knife and I wish Gary had been alive to read Exit Ghost.

Coming back to La Pléiade: it is extremely rare that a living author is published in La Pléiade. And yet, Philip Roth entered this collection on September, 12, 2017. He died on May 22nd, 2018 almost a year before Gary joined him in this literary temple.

PS: For family and friends who read this billet, here’s a last quote:

Je me retrouve donc au lycée de Nice, je continue mes études, je fais du sport, beaucoup de sport, presque professionnel de tennis de table, j’étais devenu champion junior de la Côte d’Azur où j’étais payé, parce que nous n’avions pas un sou pour donner des leçons de ping-pong, comme on disait à l’époque, et je pars faire mes études à la faculté de droit d’Aix-en-Provence d’abord, puis à Paris. 

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn – The Freak is Chic

May 8, 2019 8 comments

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989) French title: Amour monstre. Masterfully translated by Jacques Mailhos.

If you’ve never heard of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, forget about nerd techies and Star Wars aficionados. The geek here means more freak as in Freak Show. I started to read it in English but had to switch to French because I couldn’t picture what I was reading and didn’t know whether it came from my English or something else.

Something else it was.

Al and Lily Binewski inherited of the flailing Fabulon carnival show, had trouble keeping freaks on payroll to attract an audience and decided to breed their own freak show. Al would tinker with Lily’s pregnancies so that Lily would give birth to their own troop of freaks.

I’m sorry for the long quote that will follow but I don’t know a better way to introduce you to the Binewski family and give you a taste of Dunn’s brand of crazy prose.

First, this is how Al and Lilly took matter into their own hands and started their family:

The resourceful pair began experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes. My mother developed a complex dependency on various drugs during this process, but she didn’t mind. Relying on Papa’s ingenuity to keep her supplied, Lily seemed to view her addiction as a minor by-product of their creative collaboration.

And then the outcome was *drum roll*

Their firstborn was my brother Arturo, usually known as Aqua Boy. His hands and feet were in the form of flippers that sprouted directly from his torso without intervening arms or legs. He was taught to swim in infancy and was displayed nude in a big clear-sided tank like an aquarium. His favorite trick at the ages of three and four was to put his face close to the glass, bulging his eyes out at the audience, opening and closing his mouth like a river bass, and then to turn his back and paddle off, revealing the turd trailing from his muscular little buttocks. Al and Lil laughed about it later, but at the time it caused them great consternation as well as the nuisance of sterilizing the tank more often than usual. As the years passed, Arty donned trunks and became more sophisticated, but it’s been said, with some truth, that his attitude never really changed.

My sisters, Electra and Iphigenia, were born when Arturo was two years old and starting to haul in crowds. The girls were Siamese twins with perfect upper bodies joined at the waist and sharing one set of hips and legs. They usually sat and walked and slept with their long arms around each other. They were, however, able to face directly forward by allowing the shoulder of one to overlap the other. They were always beautiful, slim, and huge-eyed. They studied the piano and began performing piano duets at an early age. Their compositions for four hands were thought by some to have revolutionized the twelve-tone-scale.

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. From the beginning I slept in the built-in cupboard beneath the sink in the family living-van, and had a collection of exotic sunglasses to shield my sensitive eyes.

Despite the expensive radium treatments incorporated in his design, my younger brother, Fortunato, had a close call in being born to apparent normalcy. That drab state so depressed my enterprising parents that they immediately prepared to abandon him on the doorstep of a closed service station as we passed through Green River, Wyoming, late one night. My father had actually parked the van for a quick getaway and had stepped down to help my mother deposit the baby in the cardboard box on some safe part of the pavement. At that precise moment the two-week-old baby stared vaguely at my mother and in a matter of seconds revealed himself as not a failure at all, but in fact my parents’ masterwork. It was lucky, so they named him Furtunato. For one reason and another we always called him Chick.

The narrator is Olympia, the hunchbacked dwarf. We see her in present time (1980s) with Miranda, her daughter. Only Miranda thinks she’s orphaned and Olympia takes care of her financially and observes her from afar and is about to step into her life. (I won’t tell more to avoid spoilers). Olympia also tells us her family story, something so extraordinary that I struggle to sum it up.

Let’s say that the Binewski siblings were raised by nomadic parents who operated the Fabulon Carnival, founded by Al’s father and developed by Al himself and then Arturo. The siblings are raised in the idea the freakiest you are, the more love-worthy you are. They compete for their parents’ love through their earnings in the carnival. Whose show brings in the most money?

After a while, Arturo takes over the management, expands the carnival and soon reigns over a big crowd. In a sense, he promotes the concept of Freak Pride and call the other humans the norms (for normal people) He becomes a sort of guru, inside and outside his family. His siblings would do anything for his affection.

Geek Love is a crazy book that won’t let you indifferent. I wondered how the author’s brain came out with such a story. There are a lot of weird side characters in Geek Love and Dunn managed to design a coherent world. The details she gives about the carnival help build up her world, just like all the details about Hogwarts reveal the school of Witcraft and Wizardry in our minds and give it substance. It comes to life under our eyes.

It’s an alternative world where beauty, power, adoration and wealth are in the hands of the deformed. Obviously, it goes against the dictatorship of beauty. But if you go behind the curtain of strangeness, it’s a story of rivalry between the siblings and out-of-norm love. It describes the functioning of a close-knit clan who lives in their own world, with their own rules and bring the spectators in for the time of the show. Human nature remains and the quest for love, approval and a sense of self-worth are the same for the Binewskis as for anyone else.

Dunn questions a lot of human behaviors in her Geek Love. It challenges our reaction to physical differences. It points out our fascination for abnormalities. The Fabulon carnival wouldn’t exist without its constant influx of awestruck spectators, as if the public was at the same time repulsed, riveted and relieved that these deformities are not theirs.

Al and Lily’s actions are also questionable. Are parents allowed to interfere in a pregnancy to have the baby they want? Is it right by their children? The question is even more pressing nowadays since the medical techniques have developed tremendously since Geek Love was published.

Geek Love was our Book Club read for April and we had a lot to share about it. It’s disturbing to the point of nightmares. We agreed that we wouldn’t want to see it on a big screen as some images are better tamed in one’s mind when they come from words than from film. I know blocked things and scenes I didn’t want to imagine fully. I didn’t like the Binewkis very much but some of us found them touching in their own weird ways.

I’m eager to talk about this book with other readers. If you’ve read it, please leave a comment and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts. Spoilers are allowed if readers are warned. I’m looking forward to discussing aspects of the book I couldn’t put into this billet. Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

PS: The French title of the book, Amour monstre is perfect. Monstre as a noun covers the word Geek and monstre as an adjective means huge and this fits the story. Amour monstre means both Geek Love and Huge Love and this applies to the love Olympia feels for Arturo and Miranda.

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