The novel takes place in two time periods: the first deals with the Binewski children's constant struggle against each other through life. They especially have to deal with the Machiavellian Arty as he develops his own cult: Arturism. In this cult, Arty persuades people to have their limbs amputated so that they can be like Arty, the cult leader, in their search for the principle he calls PIP ("Peace, Isolation, Purity"). Each member moves up in stages, losing increasingly significant chunks of their body, starting with their toes and fingers. As Arty battles his siblings to maintain control over his followers, competition between their respective freak shows slowly begins to take over their lives.
The second story is set in the present and is centered on Oly's daughter, Miranda. Nineteen-year-old Miranda does not know Oly is her mother. She lives on a trust fund created by Oly before she gave up her daughter to be raised by nuns. This had been urged by her brother Arty, who was also Miranda's father (not through sexual intercourse, but by the telekinetic powers of Chick, who carried Arty's sperm directly to Oly's ovum). Oly lives in the same rooming house as Miranda so she can "spy" on her. Miranda has a special defect of her own, a small tail, which she flaunts at a local fetish strip club. There she meets Mary Lick, who tries to convince her to have the tail cut off.
Lick is a wealthy woman who pays attractive women to get disfiguring operations, ostensibly so they may live up to their potential instead of becoming sex objects; it is implied, however, that Lick's real motivation is to punish them for being more attractive than she is. Oly plans to stop Lick in order to protect her daughter.