Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Published in 1989
“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.”
Come one, come all, and see the strange weirdness of Binewski’s Carnival Fabulon! Narrated by Oly, the hunchback, albino dwarf, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love is an esoteric tale of love, lust, and infatuation that challenges the accepted norms of our society. Embrace the weird, hold onto the ugly, and cast away the normal with a story that is thought-provoking in its blunt honesty.
In a bid to make more money as a carnival, Aloysius Binewski and his wife, Lillian, take it upon themselves to breed their own freak show; she ingests various narcotics, and eventually radioactive substances, during her pregnancies to induce birth defects: the centerpiece of the brood, Arty, was born with webbed hands and feet protruding from his torso; he relies on Oly for most aspects of his life and is the oldest (and most ambitious) of the children. They have two other sisters: Oly and Electra and Iphigenia; Siamese twins with perfect upper bodies joined at the waste. Elly is more forceful while Iphy is submissive and loves Arty. The youngest child, Chick, was almost given away after being born with no visible defects until the family finds out he is telekinetic
The Binewskis keep the remains of their failed experiments in jars of formaldehyde and put them on display as an exhibit. Arty wants all of the attention; he has tried (and succeeded at) killing other siblings who could draw a bigger crowd than him. Arty eventually creates a religion of people who have surgery to remove their extremities in order to look more like him. The family slowly deteriorates as Arty takes over and harms his siblings and family. Eventually, they are all undone in a single stroke.
Oly’s story, however, jumps between her childhood and adulthood. As an adult, Oly shadows her daughter, Miranda, and looks after her senile, blind mother, though neither knows of their connection to Oly. She lives under the pseudonym Olympia McGurck and works as a radio personality due to her ability as a speaker gained while in the carnival. She is forced to speak with Miranda who wants to draw her; Miranda is studying in art school with the goal of illustrating medical texts. She corners Oly and invites her to sit for a drawing – Oly follows Miranda to The Glass House, a strip joint that specializes in girls with “gifts”; Miranda’s gift being a six inch tail. During their sessions, Miranda tells Oly about Miss Lick; a rich woman who bankrolls surgeries for certain women.
Oly tries to get into Miss Lick’s good graces in order to stop her from continuing this strange hobby; she finds out what pool the woman goes to and shows up. She works her way into Miss Lick’s good graces and finds out that Miss Lick pays the young women to become disfigured so that they will no longer be attractive to men and can focus on higher pursuits of education and careers. However, as Oly comes to know Miss Lick and sees the similarities in herself, she questions whether she can go through with the deadly deed she has in mind.
The themes in Geek Love are intertwined; the fragility of people’s self-image when based on the opinion of others and how we accept the love we receive come center-stage in the story. The love between the siblings is toxic, with Arty pining after Iphy, Elly hating Arty, and Oly trying to please Arty despite his despicable attitude toward her. Oly loves Arty and know that no one will love her as much. The characters embrace their individualism, often balking at and looking down upon the “norms”. Arty is able to exploit this for profit since the norms are unhappy with their lives and he offers them happiness and self-acceptance in his cult.
The characters in Geek Love are difficult to like, but that isn’t the reason they are here. Oly is easy to identify with and, though one may disagree with the actions she chooses and her reasons behind them, the reader can understand why she acts as she does. The writing in this book is absolutely wonderful with descriptions that are simultaneously beautiful and brash. Dunn’s writing ability and masterful use of her characters is the true star of the show, and it makes any writer envious that such talent exists and belongs to someone else. This is not a book for the faint of heart; it will challenge your sensibilities, attack your taboos, and tug at your notions of normality, but all for the better.
Verdict: 5 subverted ideas about love out of 5
Recommended for: Adults, those interested in unique fiction, people who enjoy stories told by albino dwarfs, norms, fans of well-written prose, the open-minded, and you (as long as you aren’t a child)!
Not recommended for: Children, the Binewskis, those with weak stomachs, people who cannot willingly suspend their disbelief, or people who don’t like albino dwarfs.