I first encountered Katherine Dunn’s fascinating novel Geek Love in a required contemporary literature class in college. We often watched films that complemented the texts we were reading, and this novel was paired with Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks. The real carnival sideshow performers who acted in the film added a new level of reality to Dunn’s Binewski family. Geek Love is my favorite book to recommend, but I would hesitate in calling it my favorite book because it is so unsettling to read.
Geek Love centers on the Binewski family. Al, the patriarch, inherited his father’s traveling circus and married Crystal Lil, a woman who had been a geek in that circus (“geek” here means a person who would bite the necks off of chickens with their teeth as entertainment). Al and Lil decided to create children who would also be circus attractions in order to keep the family business successful. Using drug cocktails Al invented, they had an array of children: Oly, an albino, bald dwarf with a hump; Arty the “Aquaboy”, with flippers where his arms and legs would have been; Iphy and Elly, piano-playing conjoined twins; and Chick, who seems normal (horror!) as the book opens. Oly is the main character of the novel, and she tells the stories of growing up with her family against a frame story about her present struggle to protect a unique family member in danger.
Dunn draws the reader in simply with her subject matter. The entire reason freak shows existed were due to the strange draw of seeing the weirdest and wildest of humanity. While the shows themselves have died out, our fascination with the extreme and odd elements of humanity certainly hasn’t (see the fourth season of American Horror story subtitled “Freak Show”). I would be ashamed to admit that this tactic works so well on me if diving into the reader’s assumptions wasn’t part of Dunn’s overall plan.
Geek Love is, overall, a story centered on family, so Oly is the perfect narrator with her strong devotion to them and her firm belief in the power of being a Binewski. Even with the itinerate life of a traveling sideshow family, the Binewski children experience many of the seminal events of growing up, from maturing and adulthood to sibling rivalries and squabbles. There are, of course, unique Binewski experiences—like the issues faced by the conjoined twins Iphy and Elly and the pressures of constant performing—, but these plot points are what makes the book transcend any usual family story. Oly’s devotion to being a Binewski echoes one of the big ideas of the novel about what it means to be a member of the larger human family.
The central question Geek Love asks is “what is normal?” Oly presents her family as a fairly a typical one—two parents who love one another, sibling competition, family rituals, caring for those who have died, and children taking care of one another—but her family is not “normal” as we would think of them. They are a showbiz family of “freaks”—the term used in the novel by many of the “norms” (as the Binewski children call them) in reference to the family. There is a pressure within the family to be as freakish as possible in order to be unique and to entertain crowds well. When Chick is born, Al and Lil almost leave him at a gas station because he seems like a “norm” and as such is no use to them. Dunn is able to use the “normal” family traits the Binewski’s display as touchstones for the reader to relate to experiences with their own family, but also creates situations that only the Binewski’s would experience. Sometimes those situations force the reader to question what is right or wrong, moral or amoral. The behavior of those who are considered “norms” is often found to be more freakish than that of the “freaks” and there are plenty of characters who cross from one classification to the other—what are they?
Probably my favorite plot point in Geek Love is the progression of Arty’s cult. Arty, a manipulative and persuasive genius, gets the idea when a woman at his show confesses that she wants to be just like him. The woman begins to “shed” parts of her body so that she can physically resemble her hero, believing that this will make her happy. This woman’s actions spawn a cult with followers whose desires and deeds you can imagine. Arty maintains his position as cult leader without really getting his hands dirty by enlisting a surgeon to help his followers in their journey to physically resemble him. All of the marks of a cult are here—the vulnerable followers, a central belief system, community living—but the “norms vs. freaks” dynamic makes the descriptions of Arty’s cult even more unnerving. The creepiest part about this book is how believable it all really is.
I highly recommend Geek Love because it is beautifully written and imagined. The characters are frightening, endearing, and maddening with Oly leading the way. Geek Love asks the reader to question their assumptions, prejudices, and perspectives while focusing on the fundamental strangeness of humanity and family.
Hannah Walker is a freelance editor, longtime book lover, and recent mother. Having a four-month-old only increases her homebody tendencies, but she can be found online as Walker Editing, Inc. and on Facebook.