Deformed circus freaks, incestual relationships, and plenty of dark humour; Geek Love has it all.
The back cover declares the book as a favourite for the likes of Kurt Cobain, Terry Gilliam and Flea.
Quite the collection of misfit followers Dunne has; not, unlike the oddities that comprise the Binewski family.
What’s a Geek?
Nowadays, this word is synonymous with modern culture.
Since the rise of comic book superheroes, both on and off-screen, geek culture has gone 180, becoming the ‘in thing’ for many a millennial.
However, based on the period of this book, Geek had an entirely different meaning.
A geek show was a travelling carnival that billed their performers as great individual entertainers, the entertainers were the geeks.
The role of a geek was also closely related to the sideshow performer whose purpose was to bite off the heads of live animals, often bats or chickens.
In summary, they took pleasure in the disgust they brought to audiences by going beyond acceptable behaviours.
Now that you have a background on the word ‘Geek’, the title’s far removed from the romantic YA fiction you were expecting, right?
The novel is split into four parts, each named book I, II, III, IV.
Welcome to the Family
Crystal Lil recounts her time employed as a geek during the summer breaks, explaining how the bones of numerous animals severely damaged her teeth.
Geek Love is narrated by Olympia, sister of the family.
She’s also incredibly likeable, despite her lusting, and all-round sympathetic given the circumstances that unfold.
Parents Al and Lil Binewski come up with a way of increasing traction within their fairground. What’s the best method of getting people to enter? Freaks, of course!
This means at every pregnancy, Lil takes several different ‘medicines’ concocted by Al with the sole intention of deforming her foetus.
This leads her to birthing Olympia – a bald, hunchbacked albino dwarf. Arturo the aqua boy – a limbless aqua-boy. Electra and Iphigenia – conjoined twins with a musical talent, and Fortunato – possessing of strange telekinetic energy.
Olympia, or Oly, narrates the story of her life living with her crazy family. This involves their highs, their lows, and their wacky schemes of building an empire.
As out there as parents Al and Lil appear to be, it’s Arturo who dominates the majority.
His megalomaniac ways lead him to develop a cult that follows him religiously from city to city, cutting off limbs as they go.
Influencing the Cult
Credibility is a significant influence on my reading of the characters.
How do these over-the-top characters remain believable?
Well, thanks to Katherine Dunn’s excellent writing, the world in which they inhabit is just surreal enough for them to do so, while still appearing totally degradable and grotesque.
Olympia believes that she’s unique due to her deformities, allowing her the privilege of a circus career amongst other seedy sideshows.
Her conflict comes when she meets a young woman, who’s been offered by a wealthy client, to have her tail removed.
Oly tries her best to convince her that this is her gift, once it’s gone there’s no going back.
Her motto is along the lines of ‘why fit in when you can stand out?’
This conflict does raise a more significant internal battle with our own views on disability.
Society will wrongly judge others as ‘less-abled’ or as ‘different’ because of them, yet Olympia completely flips this concept on its head.
Olympia has a strong need to feel loved.
Due to her role within the circus, as the lead speaker, she’s only ever seen as a side-act. Not ‘special’ or talented enough to have her own solo act, unlike Arty and the twins.
Owing to this, she develops a need for a role, possibly as a lover, to give her more purpose in her life.
This need for love pushes her towards Arty, even going as far as expressing her deep love for him, although not verbally.
It’s all of these things that make Olympia, such a memorable character among a family of oddballs.
Each with their own charms, the twins, for example, expressing a need to write their own songs to play for audiences but being turned down by their father because it won’t make money.
Or Lil and her slippery slide into madness as she loses control of her children to Arturo, leaving her with little to fill her time.
Despite the constant moving around, the fairground tents, and tank, are always present within the Binewski’s lives.
They’re used as reference points to indicate the walls that surround them and how they, Olympia especially, are unable to explore beyond.
A note on Dunn
Katherine Dunn says that the argument of nature vs nurture is what led to the ideas behind Geek Love. The book took ten years to craft and even longer to publish, doing so in 1989.
Many authors have referenced her work as being an inspiration for their own writing, including; Audrey Niffenegger, Douglas Coupland, Karen Russell and Chuck Palahniuk.
Geek Love has become one of my favourite books of all-time. Filled with so much philosophy, so much humour, and with an incredible appetite for the bizarre, it doesn’t let up for a single moment.
Characters are well-rounded, credible and most enjoyable to be around: in their own way.
I know that if I see this book sat on somebody’s bookshelf, we’ll immediately become best friends.