• Marginalia: Katherine Dunn

    Sarah Harshbarger


    For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week, Sarah Harshbarger—whose story “Les Garder Pour Plus Tard” appears in our Spring 2022 issue—examines a passage from Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.

    The first word that comes to mind when I think of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love is reversal. Not just because Dunn so consistently turns our expectations on their heads but because of the way values, motivations, and world views in this novel are less askew than completely upside-down. For the Binewskis, freakishness is valued above all else. The children are ranked, blatantly, by their oddities—the more repugnant they are to larger society, the better. Arty, the semi-aquatic eldest son with flippers for limbs, is so prized by the family that he develops an out-of-control god complex. Our narrator, Olympia, though born with albinism and dwarfism, is deemed unremarkable in her differences, and is therefore relegated to support roles in both the family’s carnival and their domestic life.

    In this passage, the family matriarch, Lil, has just given birth to a new Binewski child after spending her pregnancy using amphetamines and other experimental drugs in attempt to produce invaluable mutations:

    She is looking. Her fingers skim the red skull, flutter down the crumpled features, twitch in brief visits to the ears, then slide down for a brief grasp of the tiny jaw. Both her hands now spread, touching the tiny arc of the breastbone, clasping the shoulders tenderly. Lifting the two arms to their bent limit, her fingers probe the joints, checking the dimpled knuckles, counting, recounting the small larval fingers, reaching for the thorax, a firm grasp on the concave buttocks that crease into thin legs, and again the searching repeated. Count of the pea-sized toes. Her eyes slide up to the flat, hooded eyes of her husband, my father, the sire and deliverer. He looks away, picks up damp cloths, busies himself with cleanliness. Her eyes and hands return to the faintly squirming infant. She flips him neatly, his chest in her left palm and her right hand now throbbing in terrible anxiety over the tiny padded spine.

    But . . . she begins, turns the babe back to re-examine his front. But, Al . . . And the tent of wrinkles appears on her smooth milk forehead, the doubt that I had never seen in her eyes before. Al turns away and then quickly forces himself to come back to her. He puts his hands on her cheeks and strokes softly.

    It’s true, Lil. There’s nothing. He’s just a regular . . . regular baby.

    Lil is crushed by the realization that this baby is apparently “regular,” well aware that her husband will be unwilling to keep such a child in the family. In another reversal pages later, the family is about to abandon the infant at a service station in Wyoming when the newborn reveals his abnormality—incredible telekinetic strength—just as Al takes him from Lil’s hands.

    But I’m struck by an even smaller reversal in this tender moment, the gentle, physical one in which Lil turns her child over in her hands, her maternal eye trained on these hoped-for imperfections. The fear of defect is reversed, but her motions are any mother’s, her fingers taking careful inventory of this creature who came to life inside of her, but fully outside of her control.

    Sarah Harshbarger is a PhD student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her stories have appeared in Passages North, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere.

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