House Of Tudor

A renewed love of geeks, and a nomadic take on French jazz

A couple of years ago a friend of mine passed along articles from a British newspaper about a surgeon in Scotland who had amputated the legs of two patients, at their own request. There was no medical reason for the amputations; the people simply wanted their legs lopped off. After recovery, both patients publicly stated how much happier they were without their bothersome limbs. Having exhausted my interest in trepanation -- a medical procedure that involves drilling a tiny hole into the top of the skull to heighten awareness -- I looked into apotemnophilia, a relatively new but burgeoning mental disorder in which people separate themselves from their appendages in order to feel complete.

Of course, I was not alone in my inquisitiveness. On the Internet, there are thousands of people who gleefully swap photos of absent digits and meditate on the liberating promise of industrial "accidents," gangrene, and homemade guillotines. These people, however, are not curiosity-seekers like myself. Instead, they are devoted apotemnophiles who fall into three distinct categories: the "pretender," who feigns disability with wheelchair or crutches; the "devotee," who is sexually attracted to amputees; and the "wannabe," who has every intention of going all the way. From this last category of Webite came a 44-year-old man who had, at last, fulfilled his wish. He described an unprecedented feeling of spiritual and emotional wholeness derived from dismemberment. He called it a sloughing off of excess, and said that, for the first time, he did not need external validation. His comments chilled me: Feeling an uncomfortable ripple of memory, I went to the bookstore.

When I was 13, Katherine Dunn released Geek Love, her third and so far last novel. Dunn's first two books echoed her real life -- teenage runaways, cultish magazine pushers, bad checks, and jail time -- but Geek Love was another world, coddled, shaped, and nurtured by Dunn's twisted imagination. It is the story of the Binewski Carnival Fabulon and, more specifically, the Binewski children: Olympia, the humpback dwarf who sells tickets; Electra and Iphigenia, the conjoined twins who play piano; Chick, the telekinetic baby with the heart of gold; and Arturo, the sadistic flipper boy who tells fortunes from his fish tank. The beloved Binewski children are the result of careful combinations of pharmaceuticals, insecticides, and radioisotopes lovingly prepared by their father and cheerfully ingested by their mom. Aloysius and Crystal Lil Binewski dote on their young breadwinners, teaching the kids to savor their uniqueness and fleece the rubes. Sadly, Arturo's ego grows bigger than his fish tank. No longer satisfied with adoration and wonder, he wants devotion, so he creates a church. The Arturan followers must offer up their worldly goods to be "Admitted," then they must begin the "Shedding" -- fingers and toes, hands and feet, inch by inch, until "Attainment" is achieved, leaving nothing but a head and torso. This is freedom, according to Arturo, self-determination of a sort. Soon enough, there is a caravan of believers hobbling behind the Fabulon, but Arturo's putrid glory is not to last.

The entire tale is told in flashbacks by Oly as she tries to protect her own daughter from a renegade Arturan who enjoys "liberating" women from their beauty. While Geek Lovewallows blissfully in the macabre, Oly's tone -- highly discerning and deeply compassionate -- transforms the book from a strange story about sideshow freaks into a graphic rumination on childhood, dysfunctional families, and body image. And, as a girl, it certainly influenced my discernment of beauty.

Despite the large number of horrified critics who refused to read or review Geek Lovein the early '80s and the outraged Polish Anti-Defamation League, which interpreted the entire book as a slur, Geek Love earned Dunn accolades at the National Book Awards and garnered surprisingly generous support from the Little People of America. Eventually, the novel gained a substantial cult following, and David Lynch bought the film rights, which are now held by Tim Burton (Johnny Depp hopes to play Arturo). As Geek Loveis counted as a favorite among apotemnophiles, even though "wannabes" are treated with complete contempt throughout the story, a film adaptation ought to make for some very interesting ticket lines. Katherine Dunn currently reports on boxing, but she will make several rare appearances to read from Geek Lovein celebration of its return to print. She will be at the Booksmith (1644 Haight at Cole) on Wednesday, June 26, at 7 p.m.; call 863-8688. She'll read on Thursday, June 27, at Dark Carnival Bookstore (3086 Claremont in Berkeley) at 5 p.m.; call (510) 654-7323. She'll also appear on Thursday, June 27, at Diesel Bookstore (5433 College in Oakland) at 7:30 p.m.; call (510) 653-9965. Admission is free to all three readings.


Les Yeux Noirs is named for a Russian folk song called "The Black Eyes" that became famous during the 1930s. Keeping true to the title, the sextet dwells on the duskier side of klezmer, Gypsy music, and French jazz, conjuring dark roadside encampments where one might ruminate on lost love, lost fights, or, worse yet, lost horses. While, like all skillful "nomadic music" bands, Les Yeux Noirs is comfortable in the midst of riotous, explosive instrumentals, its enduring ember lies in tender, reverent songs for which voices take center stage. Swept up in violin, violoncello, accordion, electric guitar, cimbalom, and subtle electronic samples, the vocals draw the 21st century into an eddy of Eastern European folklore, rather than the other way around. Last summer, the French Music Award nominee sold out of its CDs after playing Stern Grove, so make sure to get yours before the show when Les Yeux Noirs performs on Tuesday, July 2, at the Elbo Room at 9 p.m. Tickets are $8-10; call 552-7788. The band also gives a free performance on July 4 at "Summer Jazz Sixteen" at the Stanford Shopping Center (Clock Tower Plaza, 180 El Camino Real, Palo Alto) at 6 p.m. Call 788-7353 or go to www.sfjazz.org.

 
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