So I first heard about Geek Love from the person that lent it to me. Our exchange went something like this:
Friend: Have you read Geek Love?
Me: No, I haven’t heard of it.
Friend: Seriously!? TAKE THIS.
My curiosity was further piqued by the back cover:
Geek Love is the story of the Binewskis, a carny family whose mater- and paterfamilias set out—with the help of amphetamine, arsenic and radioisotopes—to breed their own exhibit of human oddities. There’s Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs and a megalomaniacal ambition worthy of Genghis Khan … Iphy and Elly, the lissome Siamese twins … albino hunchback Oly …and the outwardly normal Chick, whose mysterious gifts make him the family’s most precious—and dangerous—asset.
As the Binewskis take their act across the backwaters of the U.S., inspiring fanatical devotion and murderous revulsion; as its members conduct their own Machiavellian version of sibling rivalry, Geek Love throws its sulfurous light on our notions of the freakish and the normal, the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and the obscene. Family values will never be the same.
Um, what? So many thoughts here, like “What does a geek mean in this situation? What kind of back blurb uses the words megalomaniacal and lissome in the same paragraph? What are you talking about FLIPPERS FOR LIMBS?!”
All of these questions, and more, are kinda sorta answered in Geek Love. To start, a geek is (I did not make this up) a freak in a circus side-show whose performances can sometimes include biting the head off a live chicken. And flippers for limbs means exactly that.
Geek Love’s protagonist, Oly (the albino hunchback, obvi) takes the reader through multiple generations of the Binewski family, whose claim to fame is their traveling carnival, at the helm of which are the genetically modified children whose physical defects are outlined above. The story touches on the issues that arise when any family works together, but with some significant deformity-related complications. We learn of Arty’s pursuit of control, the twins’ negotiations with their sexuality and Oly’s need to be loved. Some of the familial conflicts are as simple as sibling rivalry, while others blow past that and into some weird psychological shit that I’m just going to chalk up to “fins for hands, probably kind of traumatized.”
Geek Love is simultaneously unlike any book I’ve ever read, and reminiscent of some that I have, specifically Chuck Pahlaniuk’s Invisible Monsters. But Dunn’s interweaving of the carnival itself—a creepy place where all the female employees have to dye their hair red—makes the characters’ relationships with their deformities both the book’s main attraction and its backdrop. In other words, it would have been easy for Dunn to plop an albino dwarf into the machinations of everyday life (and she does) but progressing the plot in a world where such oddities are considered normal, are celebrated even, makes the novel just that much more interesting.
Although Geek Love is disturbing, it never entirely ventures into the unrealistic, obviously excluding the limitations of modern-day science. But I did struggle sometimes with assessing the characters’ emotions. Some of them—Arturo in particular—are intentionally sociopathic, while others—the parents, the twins, Oly—have an emotional makeup whose murkiness I sometimes found frustrating. On some level this may have been Dunn’s intention—abnormal children growing up in an abnormal setting are, predictably, abnormal—but it sometimes made it hard to understand what the characters were thinking.
No matter. Geek Love is great, and if I weren’t obligated to hand it back to my generous friend, I would spend the next few months lending it out to all of you, one by one. Instead you should buy it, read it, and then tell me what you think. I’ll be here, biting the heads off chickens.
TITLE: Geek Love
AUTHOR: Katherine Dunn
PAGES: 348 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Attic, Truck
SORTA LIKE: Chuck Pahlaniuk goes to the carnival
FIRST LINE: “‘When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”