Cult carny lit: Katherine Dunn's Geek Love

05_Flatbed_2 - OCTOBERVintage, 1989
9780375713347 (2002 edn) (Also Aus, US, UK)

Miss Olympia is an emotional, hunchbacked albino dwarf, and the complex narrator of this wonderful novel. In the present, Oly secretly watches over the remaining members of her carnival-of-freaks family: her daughter, Miranda, and her mother, Crystal Lil. Why her observance and care is secretive is revealed through a long, rich, detailed history of the Binewski family, which makes up the bulk of Geek Love.

The Binewskis were a carnival family – and a deliberately constructed band of freaks. Papa Al Binewski and Mama Crystal Lil experimented with drugs and other methods to create malformed children. Their greatest successes were Arturo, the Aqua Boy (sprouting fin-like limbs); Siamese twins Electra and Iphigenia; and a baby boy, Fortunato, nicknamed Chick, whose power was too awesome to even be revealed to the public. Chick looked like a ‘norm’ and so held a complex position in the family – being simultaneously envied and chastised, abused and berated, particularly by Arturo (or Arty).

Much of the drama in the novel comes from the intense emotional connections, undercurrents, and power-plays within the family – particularly in relation to the potently jealous though rapturously charismatic and manipulative Arty. Arty, through the course of the novel, even ends up with his own cult of followers: emotional ‘freaks’ who choose to remove body parts to become externally what they are on the inside. Oly’s life is devoted to Arty, she loves and slaves for him. She is affected by the hurt he inflicts on others but always returns to his altar. Later in life Oly is still susceptible to the pull of a different tortured and destructive being, but is wiser to the origins of the woman’s sympathy.

Oly was luckily blessed with an engaging show-voice and so escaped the fate of another ‘useless’ Binewski experiment – a child who wasn’t quite freakish enough and who expired when a pillow ‘fell on her head’. Several failed survivors – at fetus or infant stage – were also on display in jars on the Fabulon Carnival showgrounds.

It’s tempting to tell you every wonderful little thing about this book but so much of the joy in reading it is the compelling way it’s structured so that you know a conflict, a resolution, a conflict and a big resolution are due – and then it is constantly and joyfully surprising just how the author makes those conflicts and resolutions unfold. There are moments of laughter, horror and knowing. There is emotional engagement (and struggle), there is sexual tension, there are moments where you have sick in your throat. There is also a complete immersion in the smells, colours and sounds: ‘The sky above Molalla was aching blue but I walked from Arty’s tent to our van in the same air I’d sucked all my life. It was a Binewski blend of lube grease, dust, popcorn, and hot sugar. We made that air and we carried it with us. The Fabulon’s light was the same in Arkansas as in Idaho – the patented electric dance of the Binewskis.’

Little Chick is a heart-breaking, memorable and magical character. But it’s not just the family featured in the novel. Dunn holds together a cast far larger: Fabulon workers like the redheads, the pin-cushion kid, the nurse, the legless McGurk, a reporter who begins as an outsider and is then pulled in, and a terrifying man with no face.

Geek Love was a National Book Award finalist in 1989. From what I’ve been told (by my lovely partner who recommended the book to me) it is not so easy to get these days, but it is somewhat a cult classic – and I can absolutely see why. Besides the absolute richness of the world and story, its cohesiveness and compelling nature, the writing itself is inventive, surprising and delicious:

‘I have certainly mourned for myself. I have wallowed in grief for the lonesome, deliberate seep of my love into the air like the smell of uneaten popcorn greening to rubbery staleness. In the end I would always pull up with a sense of glory, that loving is the strong side. It’s feeble to be an object. What’s the point of being loved in return, I’d ask myself. To warm my spine in the dark? To change the face in my mirror every morning? It was none of Arty’s business that I loved him. It was my secret ace, like a bluebird tattooed under pubic hair or a ruby tucked up my ass.’

Geek Love was Dunn’s third book and after that she was working on a fourth novel, called The Cut Man. That novel has still not been released, though a fantastic excerpt appeared in The Paris Review this year, called ‘Rhonda Discovers Art’.  Try not to want to read more! Though it seems a long time between novels, Dunn has been busy with nonfiction books, magazine writing, radio and more. There’s an extensive interview with her, from 2009, here. When my partner was in New York earlier this year he attended a show which was a tribute to Geek Love and included a spoken word rendition of one of his favourite Dunn poems. You can read about that here (scroll down to mention of Geek Chic). Geek Love itself took many years to write and I think it shows – it’s truly something rich and delicious. If you haven’t checked out Geek Love and like freaky, lovely, meaty things – do.

3 thoughts on “Cult carny lit: Katherine Dunn's Geek Love

  1. So glad you found as much to love in this as I. Lovely write-up. I hope it impels more people to track the book down. That so few book stores seem to stock it these days is a blight worthy of an irradiated Binewski bub.

    Meanwhile, that poem can be found here.

  2. Possibly my favorite book of all time. Highly recommended to all my friends, who either loved it or hated it. Inspired to get it out for another read!
    Will be waiting for The Cut Man with high expectations!

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