First off, don’t read this book when you’re expecting a new baby. I did and it was unsettling. Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love is dark, funny, bizarre and gnarled. The Binewskis are a family who run a traveling carnival. In order to better keep the business under control, especially when it comes to sideshows and freaks, Al and Lilian, decide to start experimenting with their own pregnancies. The fruit of their experimentation, which requires subjecting Lil to an array of drugs and chemicals, is a mausoleum of still-born, deformed babies, and their living children: Arty, Elly and Iphy, Olly, and Chick.
Arty has stumpy flippers instead of arms and legs, is cunning and manipulative, and performs as Aqua Boy. Elly and Iphy are conjoined twins, with striking looks, who play music. Olly is a bald, albino, hunchback dwarf who worships Arty and uses her voice to announce shows. The last child, Chick, seems like a “norm,” but really has telekinetic and empathetic powers. Shhhh, it’s a secret outside the family.
The book switches between Olly as an adult, looking after her own daughter and aged mother, and Olly as a child, growing up in the carnival. At times, the carnival sections seemed to go on too long or wander in their narrative, but that’s mostly due to the addition of a character who is a journalist.
In terms of bizarre, I’m reminded of Gould’s Book of Fish. Geek Love creates a world of possibility. It tears at the edges of the “norm” world and examines people’s needs and cravings. As Arty ages from young boy to teen, he begins to take over the carnival. He manipulates his parents and siblings. He goes from carnival master to cult leader, transforming a need for entertainment into a need for belonging. Arty’s message is that one can find more spiritually and in life by losing parts of their body. His followers begin to have parts of their body amputated in order to be like Arty and experience more.
I told you it was bizarre, right? Luckily, Olly is the heart of the book. We see her love for Arty and it humanizes him at times. We also see her disdain for norms and it causes the reader to pause, as it is also a disdain for most of those who read the book.
For writers, Katherine Dunn, teaches that there are no taboos. It’s liberating to read. She creates a world filled with despicable characters making egregious decisions and draws the reader in. Some people may be turned off within a few pages of reading Geek Love, but for others there is an intriguing story there.
We witness a mother love her daughter from afar. We see that mother cross moral lines to protect her daughter. We also see how a family can rip itself apart, turn on children and exploit them. Innocence is lost. And in losing innocence, there is a desire to protect the innocence in others. Unique, gritty, and uncomfortable, Geek Love will take you somewhere you’ve never been.