Reviewed by Claire Boyle
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn is like nothing you have ever read before. Literally. Hyperbole or not, it is one of those cult classics that those who are in the know, are smug to be so, and see it in the work of Pulitzer-prize-nominee Karen Russell, of any fiction set in or around a circus, or in the latest season of American Horror Story: Freak Show. I first heard about it at university, from a lecturer who you sat up and listened to when he recommended something, as, more often than not, it was something you had never heard of before but would never forget upon reading. I have reread it more than I reread most novels and welcomed the recent reissue by Abacus for its twenty-fifth anniversary and the subsequent invitation from Simon to review it for Shiny New Books (he knows me and my taste in fiction well). It has endured twenty-five years of cult popularity but deserves a wider audience, a peanut-crunching crowd who roll up, roll up, to see the show.
You can loathe circuses and yet love circus fiction; however, Geek Love is more freak show than circus. It’s a psychedelic trip that subverts the carnivalesque and is darkly hilarious. The modern definition of geek and geekdom, that which is more embraced and accepted everyday as extreme enthusiasm, is not the geek of this novel; the geek here is an older-meaning of the word, possibly originating from the Germanic ‘geck’ for ‘fool’, the opening act of a circus sideshow, a carny freakshow, a geek that bites off the heads of live chickens after chasing them around the circus ring. ‘Crystal’ Lil Binewski, is introduced in the opening line:
When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets, Papa would say, she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing…
She is the geek of our story and the mother of our bald, albino, hunchbacked dwarf narrator. Said narrator, Olympia (Oly’), and her siblings have been bred by their parents as a means of saving their failing travelling freak show, having intentionally modified the genes of their unborn children by using a cocktail of various drugs, pesticides and radiation. Arturo the Aqua Boy is a limbless megalomaniac with flippers for hands and feet; Siamese twins Electra and Iphigenia have musical talent and a penchant for prostitution; and the baby, Fortunato or ‘Chick, possesses Telekinetic powers; all are star attractions in the Binewski Carnival Fabulon.
I did tell you that it is like nothing like you will have ever read before, but don’t turn away in disgust from the synopsis. Horrific but heartbreaking, tender yet terrifying, Geek Love, is a touching look at those who live on the fringes of every society. The dark humour makes it palatable and ultimately it is a love story as well as an absorbing family drama with sibling rivalry like no other. The Binewski family is a cast of fabulous and sympathetic characters with fiercely loyal familial ties; Oly is the heart of the family and makes for a fascinating narrator. The novel challenges our perceptions of what is normal and ordinary and what is deemed freakish and extraordinary while examining the cruelty inherent in being seen as something other: ‘They thought to use and shame me but I win out by nature, because a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born’. Dunn spans two separate time periods, the first when Oly and her siblings are growing up and the second set in the present and revolving around Oly’s daughter, Miranda. Miranda works in a strip club but a strip club for fetishes, where every performer has a little something that makes them extraordinary and worth paying to peep through a hole at: for Miranda it is her tail. To reveal more of Miranda’s story -and her genesis- would be to spoil the audacious and disturbing imaginative feat that is Geek Love as the novel itself is a letter from Oly to Miranda explaining her family’s history.
Miranda’s name is a nod to Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest and the novel’s epigraph is to Shakespeare’s last play, ‘This thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine’. (Prospero, The Tempest 5.1.275-6). Everyone has their quirks and curiosities, their freakishly-considered secrets and proclivities; some strive to appear ordinary and some embrace their natures or long to stand out from the crowd. The Binewskis relish their freak show status, of not only standing out from the crowd but drawing the crowds to them. They look down on ‘norms’ and pride themselves on their eccentricities.
I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique.
Geek Love still appeals twenty-five years after publication and twelve years after I first read it. ‘It goes in streaks. But some things never go out of fashion. Hunger artists, fat folks, giants, and dog acts come and go but real freaks never lose their appeal’. Freakishly good novels never lose their appeal. Read it and enjoy the show.
Claire used to blog www.paperback-reader.co.uk and is full of good intentions to resume one day. This may help.
Katherine Dunn, Geek Love (Abacus: London, 2015). 9780349100869, 512pp., paperback.