Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342

In Katherine Dunn’s novel, the members of the Binewski family all have what many people would consider serious shortcomings or disabilities. The novel’s narrator, Olympia, is one of the five children of Aloysius (Al) and Lillian (Lil or Lily). While she is growing up among siblings who have physical disabilities, her family seems normal to her. Two of the most important themes that Dunn encourages us to consider are the relative definition of normal and the importance of family love. For much of the novel, Olympia’s love for her family seems unconditional, but the reader learns that after growing up, she realized how mentally unstable her parents were. This revelation encourages a slightly different theme, the deceptiveness of appearances. The normal situation of parental affection and care is grotesquely distorted in the Binewski’s situation, suggesting an allegory of actual historical situations of unethical human experimentation, such as the Nazi doctors, supposedly in service of a greater good.

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In their youth through middle age, Al and Lily look normal from the outside; within themselves, however, they are narcissistic, manipulative, and cruel. As they deliberately chose prenatal behaviors that would cause birth defects, they crudely tried to genetically engineer their children’s appearance for their own personal gain. They deluded themselves in thinking that the children could earn their own living later. Because their outward appearance was “normal,” they lacked empathy with those who look different and completely ignored the likely repercussions of their actions.

One aspect of the deceptiveness of appearances relates to the disjunction between exterior and interior. One son, Chick (his real name is Fortunato), is born with tremendous mental powers. He can control others’ thoughts and objects’ movements. By setting up a situation in which the child’s mental control is the direct inversion of the parents’ physical control, Dunn puts in motion several plot points which later enable Olympia to gain at least partial control of her own destiny, as she sees her parents in a new light and tries to help her own daughter.

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