A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Convict

Katherine Dunn’s cult classic, Geek Love, has eclipsed her debut, Attic, for too long.

Riki Blanco

Some novels grow so popular that they overwhelm a writer’s career. Like one jagged peak in a range of well-proportioned hills, the novel towers over the author’s other books and holds them in shadow. For Katherine Dunn, Geek Love (1989) is that novel. The epic saga of the Binewskis, a family of circus freaks, and the tragic fate of their traveling sideshow, Geek Love was a finalist for the National Book Award and has since inspired cultish devotion (just Google “Geek Love tattoos”). It has sold more than 475,000 copies in the United States alone.

In championing weirdness over “the horror of normalcy,” the novel became scripture to readers on the margins of the mainstream, attracting such high-profile admirers as Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Dunn grafted vaudeville vernacular onto a cool classicism, a prose style at once effortless and extravagant. And in Geek Love’s fun-house mirror, conventional hierarchies of beauty and worth are upended—an alluring inversion for legions of readers to whom the Binewskis are folk heroes. Dunn once said her ambition was “to write something that will punch out through time,” and almost 30 years on, Geek Love does exactly that.

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A success of such magnitude guarantees posterity, but it also threatens to make Dunn, who died in 2016 at the age of 70, seem like a narrower artist than she was. Lost in the Geek Love phenomenon were the two novels that Dunn had published some 20 years earlier, which have struggled to remain in print. “Most people didn’t even know I’d ever written anything else,” Dunn recalled in 2009. Now, with the reissue of Attic (1970), her astonishing debut, readers have a chance to see Katherine Dunn not only as Geek Love’s author, but as an expansive novelist giving voice to American estrangement.

Attic is a jail novel. Largely set on the 13th floor of the Jackson County Jail in Kansas City, Missouri, it provides a barred window into one woman’s pitilessly violent, radically sexual psyche in the early 1960s. That the narrator shares a name with the author suggests that it’s also a book of artistic awakening, a portrait of the artist as a young convict.

Katherine, the late-adolescent narrator, has run away from her Oregon home and finds herself in Independence, Missouri, with a traveling posse hawking magazines door-to-door. Attic functions as an early exposé of these crews, still a scourge in America, which hire vulnerable youth to peddle magazine subscriptions at wildly inflated prices. Part of the trick is to pitch a sob story to potential marks, to say anything that will make them cut a check—a criminal perversion of the author’s relationship to her readers, and a hint at her developing rhetorical powers.

Katherine is given to spinning exceedingly dark fantasies out of everyday moments. Setting the tone of this often twisted novel, an early passage elaborates the sight of small children on a merry-go-round into a pornographic vision of sexual initiation, the children “screaming and laughing” as they submit to the suddenly virile horses of the carousel. Angela Carter’s most subversive fairy tales come to mind: Just as Carter foregrounds the savagery inherent in children’s stories, so Katherine unleashes violent impulses onto innocent pictures.

When she tries cashing a fraudulent check, Katherine is thrust into the Jackson County Jail. That sprawling imagination of hers is now barricaded in a cell, and the honed result is a fierce observational gaze. This witness has the power to annihilate a cell mate with scornful precision: She has “the phony fecundity of a belly full of slack muscles”; “her breasts are heavy and dead at her navel and I can tell.” Attic is a gallery of vividly drawn prisoners—an alpha-dog lesbian, a pregnant thief, and the mysterious Sister Blendina. The only murderer in the cell, Blendina plays solitaire day and night, never appearing to sleep or eat, “her ancient face and her newborn eyes unchanging” even during a fire in the cell.

Katherine tells the stories of her cell mates, offering a brutal, often heartbreaking glimpse of what working-class Midwestern women endured in a society that would rather lock them up than listen. Take Patsy, who, after being raped as a young woman, cut her hair short and blackened it with shoe polish, becoming someone who “couldn’t say ‘Pass the butter’ without putting into that voice a plea not to be hated.” Patsy is in jail for attempting to murder her rapist, and is now obsessed with a private, theological justice: “She was always reading her Bible but she only read the parts that were on her side.”

Attic requires an iron stomach. An early New York Times review complained that “a great deal of the action takes place near or on the toilet”—but surely this complaint applies to any time spent in the scant interior of a jail cell. Attic’s scatology speaks to what Katherine’s ravenous imagination must feed on when incarcerated. The toilet becomes a kind of shrine for Katherine, a space in which to work out the neuroses of confinement:

I could piss over [my cell mate’s] piss but I can’t piss over her shit, much less shit over it and have them mix. It would be terrible if mine came out lighter or darker than hers—you could tell whose they were. Even worse if they were the same.

Dehumanized by imprisonment, Katherine seeks remnants of identity in excrement.

Yet this consummate jail novel is also a novel of escape. As the plot slows, the days beginning to blend into something like a stable routine, Katherine’s imagination expands outward again into fantasy and memory. Many of her fantasies involve spasms of violence, including what must be one of the earliest visions of a school shooting in American literature: “Walk into the dining hall with a machine gun and spray into their faces—stop them all dead in the laughing with their war stories about Wittgenstein.”

But Katherine’s memories turn the violence back upon herself. She sees memory as “an aggressive thing,” and indeed the recollections come as unwilled visitations. Her mother, who frequently inspected the young Katherine’s genitals for signs of abuse or masturbation, looms largest. In these fragments of memory (Dunn said that Attic was composed in five-minute washroom breaks while working three part-time jobs), we see the genesis of Katherine’s psychodramatic blend of pleasure and shame: “Even when I was very young I giggled when my mother whipped me.” Dimly, we also perceive an emerging artistic intelligence, one that instinctively retreats to the safety of observation and rejects the instinct for some apocalyptic outburst that might impose her inner torment on the world. When her mother violates her privacy, Katherine says, in a telling switch to the second person, “You draw back further and further into some quiet place and watch.” What she sees there hints at why she fled into the American heartland.

Dunn’s unusual debut came with an unusual author profile. “Before turning to writing Katherine Dunn tried the following occupations,” read the dust jacket of the first edition of Attic, citing jobs as an artist’s model, a Sugar Daddy wrapper, and an “Invalid’s companion,” among others. The closer-to-fiction reality went unsaid: Dunn, as she later wrote, had been “big on running away” from her artistic mother and family of storytelling migrant workers, and had often found herself in juvenile-detention centers, even once landing in the Jackson County Jail for peddling magazines.

But the strange book made readers curious to know more. Upon Attic’s publication, The Kansas City Star asked the local sheriff whether he could corroborate its particulars. He indeed remembered Dunn—“different from most of the women”—and then nitpicked one of the book’s most disturbing sequences: “Yes, she could have heard a boy being raped in the men’s section but the sounds would have come through a ceiling grill, not through a steel plate on the same floor.”

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Attic’s truth doesn’t reside in such details—or in the other specifics drawn from Dunn’s life. It lies in how jail reshapes Katherine’s—and Dunn’s—consciousness. For the author, certainly, incarceration changed everything. “I saw myself at a fork in the road,” Dunn wrote in 1989 in an autobiographical note, “where my choices were a life of petty and extremely unglamorous crime, or getting my shit together in a major way.” She pulled that off at Reed College, where she won a Rockefeller grant for writing, which sustained her until she went back to part-time jobs. But to judge by her first, autobiographical narrator, her writing practice was profoundly shaped by her early experience of jail. The word attic doesn’t appear in the novel, yet it suggests a childhood refuge, a private incubator for the imagination, a height from which to contemplate the world below. For better and for worse, the towering Jackson County Jail was Dunn’s attic.

The novel is far from perfect. Visibly learning on the job, Dunn tries out different, not always appropriate, angles from which to approach her subject. The compulsion to render an image in an original way—one of the book’s central strengths—sometimes leads to a tortured obliqueness. (Her cell’s metalwork is “steel—but more natural, allowed to flow in its own nonorganic forms, pure tubes and plates without the strain of assuming mock-living shapes.”) Elsewhere, Dunn is given to breathless run-on sentences that read like Molly Bloom’s castoffs, complete with the punctuating “yes.” Dunn herself was impatient with her lack of craft, later remarking that in her two early works (Truck appeared a year after Attic), she’d “been cranking the stuff all those years only semiconsciously. I opened my mouth and it poured out. It was about as deliberate and artful as belly-button lint.”

Determined “to learn how to write,” she then embarked on the 18-year journey that finally resulted in Geek Love. Dunn published only essays and journalism, not fiction, and in 1979 quietly began focusing on what turned out to be her last completed novel. She emerged a changed writer, dedicated to agonizing perfectionism. She worked on her next novel, Cut Man, set in the world of small-time boxing, until the end of her life, never bringing it to a satisfactory state. Yet for all the distance she traveled, fans of Geek Love may be surprised to find that Attic is the crucible in which Dunn undertook an experiment she kept returning to in different ways.

Her lifelong interest, and creative impetus, lay in social arrangements outside the norm. The family dynamic at the heart of Geek Love is a baroque elaboration of the ad hoc family of Katherine’s cell. Both are collections of designated freaks on the margins of society, gnarled souls seeking some sense of belonging. Though she yearns for freedom, Katherine recognizes that inside the jail, perhaps for the first time in her life, “the food’s good. It’s warm. Outside I could only shiver and scrounge.”

A Hobbesian vision of human nature undergirds Dunn’s art. Violence animates all her novels, as well as her considerable output as a journalist covering the sport of boxing. In a 2009 interview she said, “My perception of the human animal is as an extremely dangerous predator,” an insight that seems already fully formed in Attic. “We are so afraid of eating each other,” Katherine observes of the women in the cell. “Sharks do—wolves do—it is irresistible.” As in the catastrophic Geek Love, family bonds can suddenly give way to a war of all against all.

But Attic shouldn’t be seen simply as an apprenticeship to the later work. With its ruthless, utterly unsentimental depiction of a closed female society, imprinted in explosive, expressionistic language, this shattering prison novel deserves to capture its own audience. Dunn’s debut has served a long enough sentence in the shadow of Geek Love.