Geek Love: A Novel
Originally published: 1989, US
Rating: 5 (Personal Classic)
I have to give some credit to my friend R, who read this with me and helped me gather my thoughts for this review.
There is something about circus sideshows and “freaks” that people just are drawn to and fascinated by. When we see someone who is different than we are or different from the “norm”, we want to figure out how and why. It may be voyeuristic or grotesque, but there is some part of human nature that is fascinated by differences, especially physical ones, whether we admit it to ourselves or not.
Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love uses this fascination and has fun with it. The story focuses on a carny family and their unique abilities as it also forces us to question what is freakish and what is normal.
The story follows the Binewski family. Al Binewski inherited his father’s circus and married Crystal Lil, a woman who had been a geek in that circus (“geek” here means a person who would bite the necks off of chickens with their teeth as entertainment–awesome, right?). Al and Lil decided to create children who would also be circus attractions. Using drug cocktails that Al concocted, they had an array of children: Oly, an albino, bald dwarf with a hump; Arty the “Aquaboy”, with flippers where his arms and legs would have been; Iphy and Elly, piano-playing conjoined twins; and Chick, who seemed normal (horror!) until his telekinetic abilities were revealed. Oly is the main character of the novel, and she tells the stories of growing up with her family as well as explaining her present struggle with how to best protect a unique family member in danger.
Geek Love captures the important historical phenomenon of the traveling circus, where people came to see the weirdest and wildest of humanity. There were the common things like cotton candy and sword swallowers, but there were also specialty acts like a fly wrangler or an “Aquaboy” with fins instead of limbs. This fascination with the extreme and odd is still alive and well today but more hidden on the internet than out in the openness of the circus midway*. In the novel, Dunn captures this historical moment well through Oly’s stories from her childhood and the characters she meets along the way.
*Beware: You can get stuck on the internet for hours looking up historical circus acts and circus freaks.
Relatable main character
Oly is an excellent gateway into the Binewski family. She is a great observer of her other family members and is an accessible voice because she is vulnerable with the reader and seems to be as honest as she can be. She is still a flawed character (she’s in love with her brother), but she experiences loneliness, feels inferior, is proud of her family, and fiercely loves her family. Oly is a bald, albino, hunchbacked dwarf, but her happiness, struggles, and desires are very relatable. I feel like I would be friends with Oly, if she’d let me, in real life.
What is normal?
Geek Love focuses on the question “What is normal?” Oly presents her family with some of the basics of a typical family—two parents who love one another, sibling competition, family rituals, caring for those who have died, and children taking care of one another—but her family is not “normal” as we would think of them. They are a showbiz family of “freaks”—the term used in the novel by many of the “norms” (as the Binewski children call them) in reference to the family. There is a pressure in the family to be as freakish as possible in order to be unique and to entertain crowds well. Oly, although she is a bald, albino dwarf with a hump, feels inferior to her siblings because she cannot draw big crowds and is stuck doing announcements for her siblings’ shows. When Chick is born, Al and Lil almost leave him at a gas station because he seems like a “norm” and so is no use to them. His first display of telekinetic power is the only thing that saves him from being abandoned. Although some of the emotions and desires of the Binewski’s seem “normal”, they are sometimes difficult to fully understand (at least for “norm” readers).
Arty’s cult (Arturism)
Arty, a manipulative and persuasive genius, has a cult grow up around him that is fascinating. Dunn is said to have been inspired in this book by the rise of cults at the time and by the events at Jonestown. Arty’s cult is a fascinating one because he makes it seem like they came to him and that he did not cause people to be this way. It all starts with a woman who attends Arty’s show and admits that she wants to be just like him. The woman begins to “shed” parts of her body so that she can physically resemble her hero, Arty—who has a torso with flippers where his arms and legs should be—believing that this will make her happy. This woman’s actions spawn a cult of people whose desires and deeds you can imagine. Their motto is PIP (Peace, Isolation, Purity). This aspect of the novel is certainly in the top 5 creepy parts (oh yes, there are more) and creates a great study and criticism of cults.
Geek Love is a novel that begins in the present, jumps to the past for quite a while, and the proceeds into the future. While this is a common way to order a novel, the plot sometimes seems jumpy and disconnected. Some readers may lose their place in the story or feel like the novel is slow because of the way the plot is structured. Parts of the ending also seem to tie up the plot points in a hurry; the part that tells the fates of Oly’s family members goes so quickly that it is almost not as satisfying as I want it to be. Some people criticize this novel for needing editing, and I think it is mostly because of the structure of the plot (though I could get into a much longer discussion of why I think this structure is necessary for the novel).
Some disturbing aspects
Geek Love was not written to make you feel comfortable. On the contrary, it is meant to make you feel uncomfortable because it deals with a wide spectrum of human experience—death, love, birth, sex, power, betrayal, loss of innocence, family, etc. There is Arty’s cult of course, and the surgeon who performs all of the operations. There is a character who lives upstairs in Oly’s building who works at a strip club and capitalizes on her tail to make money. There is a man who attempts to kill the Binewski children in a parking lot. There is a woman who works to make other women’s lives “better” by surgically removing physical aspects of theirs that get in the way of success. There is rape, prostitution, drug use (Lil’s cocktails), puberty, pregnancy, and murder.
In my opinion, these aspects of the human experience that Dunn highlights are necessary and appropriate for the story (save maybe one—but no spoilers). I tell you about these so that you have no illusions going into this novel—it will get dark, but it is totally worth it.
When the Lights Go Down:
This book is challenging in that it makes you think about your view of the world and what is “normal”. I find that generally people who like that type of challenge enjoy this book, and those who like something more easily digestible are not as pleased with it. If you can embrace this novel’s style, it may easily become one of your favorites like it is one of mine.