Geek Love is a story about deformity, megalomania, tyranny, oppression, torture and death.
It is also a story about devotion, love, humanity and the strength of the family.
Perhaps one of the most unusual books I have ever read, Geek Love made me wince, feel sick and forced me to think about the nature and norms of human society. This is not a treat for voyeurs - it sets out to shock but it also aims to make you think. Do not be put off by any assumed sensationalism - this is a great book!
The story is narrated by Olympia Binewski, a bald, hunchbacked albino dwarf. When we meet her, she is in middle age, living with her mother, Crystal Lil who has descended into deafness and madness, and no longer recognises the daughter who is caring for her. With these two women lives Miranda, Olympia's daughter who was put into the care of the nuns at a very early age, and like her grandmother, does not recognise the dwarf who she shares a house with as her mother.
This fictional present-day strand of the story centres around Miranda, who has been enticed by the ill-intentioned Mary Lick into having an operation to remove her small but enchanting tail. This strand of the story is about Olympia's attempts to save her daughter from the clutches of Miss Lick, whilst at the same time keeping the secret of her relationship to Miranda.
The present-day theme is interspersed with memories from Olympia's past, and as this tale unfolds, the secrets of Crystal Lil and Olympia gradually unravel. For me the most riveting part of the book is this history of the Binewski family. Lil was born an aristocrat, but gave it all up for the love of a good man - Al Binewski. She joins his carnival as a geek - an act that specialises in biting the heads off live chickens, and they are soon married. Al and Lil both hope for the best for their children - that they should be freakish enough so that they can earn their way in life as a carnival act. To this end Lil doses herself with drugs and radiation during all of her pregnancies, hoping to avoid giving birth to a "norm". She succeeds, and soon Electra and Iphigenia the Siamese twins are born, closely followed by Arturo the Aqua boy who has flippers instead of arms and legs. Olypmia is a bit of a disappointment to them as her deformities are not exaggerated enough to form a stand-alone carnival act - and the last to be born, Fortunato, is to all intents and purposes a norm. Where did they go wrong? Luckily Fortunato reveals that he has the gift of telekinesis before they have time to give him away, and the family is complete.
The dynamics of this strange family make for absorbing reading. Arturo develops into a charismatic young man, who everybody both loves and fears. Sexually dynamic, his carnival act attracts many followers, and his power to lead soon becomes a tyrannical dictatorship that demands extreme and total devotion from his family and his followers. The impact on his family and the power that he exudes on his devoted followers form the nucleus of the book, and not only provide the background to Olympia's story, but also encourage the reader to consider the nature of the "freak" and the way in which physical attributes mould the destiny of all people.
When I picked this book up, I expected to read about the problems of being different. Instead I found a book that analysed the philosophy of the cult, and explored the hold that a charismatic personality can exert over a large number of people. I also found a touching story about the power of the family; the loyalty and emotional strength of sibling love that cannot be broken, even though it is stretched to the limits. More obviously, I read about physical difference and the experience of being Other in society. Although this was the most obvious point for the novel to make, it still made me think about stereotypes and assumptions that everybody has when confronted with something outside the acceptable norm.
The quality of the writing is an enormous strength. The characters are so well drawn that the reader forgets their bizarre appearance and is totally carried away with the emotions, their struggle for survival, their clashes. The prose is dynamic and attention grabbing from the start, yet combined with an evocative level of description that makes carnival life very real.
"A carnival in daylight is an unfinished beast. Rain makes it a ghost. The wheezing music from the empty, motionless rides in a soggy rained-out afternoon midway, always hits my chest with a sweet ache".
Katherine Dunn has written several best selling novels, and is also a poet and a journalist. She was born in Portland, Oregon. Since Geek Love, she's been a prolific boxing writer and freelance writer but hasn't written another novel.
Geek Love was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1989.
First Published in 1989 by Abacus Press.