By Katherine Dunn. Published in 1989.
The story of Geek Love is grotesque—a vivid nightmare of abuse, violence, incest, and all manner of depravity—so it’s a testament to Katherine Dunn’s skill as a writer that the novel manages to overcome readers’ knee-jerk repulsion. Although the horror remains, as it should, the detached disgust melts away, making room for the wonder and thought and empathy the book also inspires. Dunn easily could have traded in shock value, but her writing is too smart and too human for anything so cheap. The bizarre premise might capture the attention, but the carefully controlled narrative, perceptively drawn characters, and evocative language are what make Geek Love so memorable and profoundly affecting.
The “geek” of the title refers not to socially inept nerds but to physically abnormal circus performers. Traveling carnival owner Al Binewski and his wife, Crystal Lil, want to breed their own freak show (“What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?” Lil asks), and to that end, they experiment with drugs and radioactive material to alter their children’s genes in utero. Many of their offspring are stillborn or die in infancy, but five survive: Arty, a boy with flippers for limbs; Elly and Iphy, conjoined twins; Oly, a hunchback albino dwarf; and Chick, the baby of the family, who looks like a “norm” but possesses uncharted telekinetic powers. Together the Binewskis achieve relative success traveling the country, but when the megalomaniacal Arty converts fans into cultists, with himself as their leader, the family’s twisted dynamics become even more volatile.
Oly relates the calamitous events of her childhood with a few decades of distance. In the present day, she lives a largely solitary life watching over her mother, who is too drug-addled to recognize anyone, and her daughter, who was given up for adoption as a baby and who believes herself an orphan. As a narrator, Oly is frank but not self-aware. Whenever she describes her own emotions, for example, one has to consider carefully whether to accept her word; quite often, her stated feelings seem to be contradicted in the details or elaboration.
That complexity helps make Oly a fascinating character, but even more important is Oly’s status as a secondary player on the stage of Binewski psychodrama. Oly is not as smart as Arty, not as beautiful and talented as the twins, and not as gifted as Chick (no one is as gifted as Chick). She is observant and tenacious and loyal to considerable fault, but she’s not a power-player, and she knows it. But from her spot on the sidelines, she is our window into the Binewski’s alien world, and her love for the inhabitants of that world—however damaged and damaging they might be—helps us keep sight of everyone’s humanity.
That’s important because Geek Love is about humanity, what it means to be “normal,” what makes someone special, and whether we can make those determinations for ourselves, independent of the larger world. The pivotal scene in which Arty lays out his ideas on the subject—how his deformities have freed him because of their extremity, immunizing him from judgments about physical beauty—is shockingly powerful; even when he takes those ideas to appalling ends, the resonance of that initial scene lingers, a spectacular example of the charisma and cunning Dunn so vividly conveys in Arty.
But Dunn doesn’t have to rely on one character to give the book its spark. The perfectly paced novel teems with energy from the first page. Too often, framed stories such as this are weak outside of the flashbacks (one wonders why the author bothered with the frame in the first place), but in Geek Love, Dunn makes the present-day material just as compelling as the looks back. What’s more, the themes of the two halves complement each other, building on each other. The book’s stunning climax—like something out of Greek tragedy—might be in the past, but the contemporary aftershocks have weight of their own: the ultimate expression of Oly’s personal morality and love.