Geek Love – Katherine Dunn
Geek Love is the story of the Binewskis, a carny family who set out—with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes—to breed their own exhibit of human oddities. There’s Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs and a megalomaniac ambition worthy of Genghis Khan . . . Iphy and Elly, the lissome Siamese twins . . . albino hunchback Oly, and the outwardly normal Chick, whose mysterious gifts make him the family’s most precious–and dangerous–asset.
As the Binewskis take their act across the backwaters of the U.S., inspiring fanatical devotion and murderous revulsion; as its members conduct their own Machiavellian version of sibling rivalry, Geek Love throws its sulfurous light on our notions of the freakish and the normal, the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and the obscene. Family values will never be the same.
Review: I’ve written and deleted this review so many times because this book has stumped me. I liked it, but I can’t say I enjoyed reading it, and that’s a very hard thing to explain.
Geek Love is about sibling rivalry. The Binewski family uses drugs to give birth to deformed children for their freak show. As the children grow up, they start competing against each other, wanting more and more attention from the crowds who come to see their deformities. Eventually, the siblings resort to mutilation and murder to get rid of the competition.
This is one of those books that will make you uncomfortable. Nothing is off-limits. Since the story is about bodies, there is a lot of discussion of body parts, functions, and fluids. There’s even a scene where the younger brother scrapes mold off the older brother’s balls. He does it with magic—which I guess is more sanitary than doing it with your fingers—but still, yuck. If you’re squeamish, you should probably avoid this novel.
The characters are extremely well-developed and extremely unlikeable. Crowds come to the family’s carnival to see “freaks,” but the true freakishness of these characters is on the inside. They put money and fame before anything else and will do whatever it takes to get attention, including abandoning babies who aren’t deformed enough to draw crowds. There’s no limit to the characters’ depravity, which makes them interesting to read about.
My favorite character is Chick. He’s the youngest child and the only one who doesn’t have a competitive personality. He’s really sweet. I was hoping his storyline would have a happy ending, but the other people in this book are way too messed up to let that happen. Chick’s magic becomes a weapon in his siblings’ quest to destroy each other.
The characters are well-developed, and the writing is brilliant (with lots of gory details), but I still had a lot of trouble getting through Geek Love. It was very easy for me to put the book down and not pick it back up. This is one of those novels that have amazing characters and an interesting world but not much action. I spent the first few hundred pages waiting for the plot to start. When there is action, it often happens so quickly that it’s slightly confusing. The pace of the story was always too slow or too fast for me. I was either confused or bogged down in details.
When I finished the book, I still had a lot of questions, especially about Arturo the Aquaboy. Arturo is able to convince thousands of people to cut off their limbs so they look like him and are no longer “ordinary,” but what’s so appealing about Arturo? Are people just envious of the attention he gets? Why would anyone want to be like him? He’s a horrible person with no redeeming qualities. The book’s narrator, Oly, is his willing slave and spends most of her time with him, so I feel like I should have seen something good about Arturo that would make people listen to him. And, if thousands of people are cutting off their limbs, then won’t limbless people become “ordinary”? I don’t know, but I definitely wouldn’t cut off my limbs for Arturo. (Or for anybody else. Probably.)
“There are those whose own vulgar normality is so apparent and stultifying that they strive to escape it. They affect flamboyant behavior and claim originality according to the fashionable eccentricities of their time. They claim brains or talent or indifference to mores in desperate attempts to deny their own mediocrity. These are frequently artists and performers, adventurers and wide-life devotees.
Then there are those who feel their own strangeness and are terrified by it. They struggle toward normalcy. They suffer to exactly that degree that they are unable to appear normal to others, or to convince themselves that their aberration does not exist. These are true freaks, who appear, almost always, conventional and dull.” – Geek Love
Reading Geek Love made me think about how much ability people should have to change their bodies. In my culture, tattoos, piercings, and plastic surgery are normal, but where’s the line? Should people be allowed to cut off their limbs? Stick pins in their skin? Inject chemicals into their bloodstreams that change how fetuses grow? Also, who gets to make up the rules for body modification? In the book, a man shoots at Oly and her siblings because he doesn’t think deformed children should be alive, but the children love being “freaks.” Who gets to decide which types of body modification are okay and which aren’t?
I can see why this book is considered a modern classic. It’s thought-provoking and deeply unsettling. However, I struggled to finish it because of the pacing and the lack of plot.