Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

If you have been following my literary reviews for a little while, you have probably noticed a pattern according to which I select my reading materials. I love hard SF, and I am fascinated by anything that even brushes against topic of singularity so it tends to dominate by review section. That said, I sometimes take a break from futuristic musings, and distant future theories and dive into more mainstream stuff if it happens to strike my fancy. For example, I have reviewed Life of Pi, Firmin and, this thing. That last one didn’t actually strike any fancies, but it just had to be done – you know, for great justice and all that.

Today’s book is another departure from my usual preferences. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn is not a science fiction book – not by a long shot. While it does contain some fantastic elements, it is more mainstream than the stuff you usually read about here.

Geek Love book cover

The title and the cover are a little bit misleading. Looking at them, you probably already formed a mental image of what this book is about. You are probably thinking that it is some sort of a romance story, featuring nerds and geeks finding love against all odds – or something like that. This could not be further from the truth. The word geek in the title is used in it’s original meaning. As per Merriam-Webster dictionary the word used to mean:

A carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake.

Yes, this is a book about carnies. I never really had any particular fascination with the carney folk, until I watched bunch of episodes of that short lived HBO show. Sadly it petered out, and LOST itself in it’s own internal mystery mill, but it did give me a glimpse into the fascinating culture and mores of traveling freaks and performers and the lives they live on the outskirts of normalcy. So when I was recommended a book that explored these concepts, I was intrigued.

The story is rather interesting account of the rise and the fall of the Biniewski Fabulon – a traveling carnival troupe. When their business fell on hard times the patriarch Al Biniewski stumbles upon a brilliant idea. Instead of searching for rare talent for his dwindling freak show, he decides to breed his own. With aid of various drugs, and radioactive isotopes ingested by his wife during pregnancy they spawn a litter of strangely deformed children. Some of their early experiments are too deformed to survive outside the womb, so they end up in glass jars on display. Eventually the couple gets the drug cocktails right. Their eldest son Arturo, and the rising star of the show billed as “The Aqua Boy” is born with atrophied flipper like appendages where his hands and feet should be. The singing and dancing duet of Elly and Iphy is composed of conjoined twins which share a single set of hips and legs that fork into two separate torsos. Their younger sister Oly has an embarrassingly pedestrian set of deformities – she is an albino dwarf. She is too much of a freak to blend in the crowd, but not enough to warrant her own show at the Fabulon. Finally, the youngest member of the family, a normal looking boy nicknamed “Chik” has a gift so bizarre and peculiar that the family decides to keep it secret, even from the members of their own troupe.

The book is told from the perspective of the middle child, Oly. While hideously deformed she never bears grudge against her parent’s decisions. If anything, she regrets not being special enough. She recounts her life in the shadow of her more successful older siblings, and the self contained universe of the traveling carnival. Biniewski’s are like modern day fey folk – existing outside the normal society, driven by their own warped sense morality and loyalty to each other. They are passing through the mundane world, but rarely interact with it other than through their shows which are designed to dazzle, mesmerize and subdue the gullible norms. But when they venture outside of their tents and trailers, their strangeness is met with a mixture of awe, fear, derision and violence.

But above all else this is a story about a group of peculiar and wonderfully colorful characters. Arty, the Aqua Boy is a cruel, scheming, Machiavellian megalomaniac who engineers his shows to become pseudo-religious experiences. His inspiring speeches lures the week, and disturbed audience members and inspire a strange self-mutilation cult that follows the Biniewski Fabulon wherever it goes. He is abusive, controlling, possessive and mean to his siblings, and yet most of them adore him anyway. In fact, they compete between each other for his approval.

Elly and Iphy struggle with their peculiar condition as they stumble face first into puberty. It is impossible to physically separate them, but their hormones and temperaments are driving them apart. To make things worse, they can’t agree on how to deal with their older brother. Iphy adores the Aqua Boy and pines for his attention, while Elly clearly sees him for the dangerous and unhinged monster that he is and wants nothing to do with him.

Olly struggles with self esteem issues, always the bastard child who was not deformed enough to be a main attraction of a carnival show. To make up for her shortcomings she works hard to be useful. In essence she is everyone’s bitch – her siblings use and abuse her as the see fit because she gladly allows it. Her first priority however is Arturo – her charismatic, but cruel and abusive oldest brother. Olly is nursing a secretive, incestuous crush on him, and is willing to do anything for his attention, and does not tolerate anyone or anything that could stand between them.

Initially the Biniewski have no clue what to do with Chick and his bizarre and dangerous gifts. He is the odd man out, forced to live in secrecy and hold back at all times. That chances when he ends up being a crucial player in Arturo’s cult. He finally finds his place in the Biniewski pecking order, but at the cost of being robbed of his childhood as his growing responsibilities slowly replace his play time. But he is eager to please and to prove himself – and as a result he slowly wastes away – his work draining him physically, psychologically.

Al, proud boss and owner slowly descends into alcoholism as his operation is subtly subverted and taken over by his eldest son, and he is made redundant. His wife becomes almost entirely detached from reality as the drug addictions he picked up during her many pregnancies finally take their toil.

But Biniewskis are not the only strange characters in the story. “The Bag Man” who lost his entire face in a failed suicide attempt employing a shotgun who becomes Arty’s bodyguard. An unhappy legless inventor eschews his prosthetic legs and agrees to work Arturo’s light show in exchange for being allowed to take advantage of the overspill of Aqua Boy female groupies. A journalist quits his job and travels with the carnival, working on a book about this peculiar family and the pseudo-religious following it inspired. A paranoid, germophobic surgeon also joins the troupe, living in her sterilized, pressurized van that she never leaves without her mask and gloves. Inside she performs elective surgeries on herself looking for tracking devices that she is sure government planted on her in her youth. There is also a rich heiress of a TV dinner franchise fortune whose hobby is convincing young women to hideously mutilate themselves in exchange for money, health care benefits and careers prospects.

This is the cast from Jerry Springer’s wet dream. You will be hard pressed to find a more dysfunctional, twisted and pathological group of freaks. And yet, their story is not really about how strange they are on the outside. Their strangeness is besides the point. Despite their physical oddities and their warped morality, they are very human – driven by their emotions, petty jealousies, deeply seethed grudges and dark desires. They are bizarre and alien, but at the same time oddly easy to identify with.

Geek Love is a strange book. Some parts are moving, other parts are twisted and disgusting but it is always captivating. Dunn’s style is a bit uneven at times – some chapters employ lovingly crafted, wonderful turns of phrase you want to bookmark at steal at the next opportunity. Other times the narration can be a bit choppy. Overall though, she paints the life and stories of her carney folk in picturesque detail, vivid color and with a good dose of dark humor and irony. It is a study in all things strange, weird and disgusting. It is a story about love, family and dark impulses and indulgences that can wreck lives.

Hell, even I was strangely captivated by the Aqua Boy’s rhetoric. While he is a ruthless monster, his philosophy is rather sound and compelling. He is a freak who preaches to an audience of ordinary boring people, and what does he talk about? He talks about being different. Every norm has a deep desire to be special. That’s why they sing, dance, create, make money and do eccentric things – they just want to stand out from the crowd, and be noticed. Those how are born as true freaks however tend to go the opposite way. They try to pass for ordinary people, to fit in and hide their deformities (be their physical or psychological) behind the facade of normalcy. They live a lie, and are unable to find happiness because of not being true to themselves. They are unable to find love and companionship because norms are repulsed by their dark secret the instance they find out, and even if they are not they feel betrayed and lied to. Biniewsis on the other hand transcend that condition – they flaunt their deformities and let their freak flag fly high. If you wear your weirdness out in the open as a badge of honor, some people will inadvertently hate you for it, but they would eventually turn on you anyway. The sooner you weed them out and cut them out of your life the better – and then you can surround yourself with people who do love and accept you for who you are. This is not a bad message, even though it comes from an unhinged cult leader.

I highly recommend this novel. It’s not something that will appeal to everyone, but if you like strange characters, dark ironic humor, and dysfunctional family drama taken to epic proportions you will enjoy it. Especially if you have ever felt like a social outcast or a freak. Regardless of how messed up the Biniewskis are, they are a sort of odd inspiration. Not in the way they ruin each others lives, but in the way which they carry themselves despite their deformities and shortcomings.

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4 Responses to Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

  1. Victoria Netscape Navigator Mac OS says:

    This sounds really interesting, I will check it out. Funny how the title is misleading :)

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Victoria:

    Yeah, it is the kind of title that messes with impulse buy type things in book stores. A lot of people will pass over it, thinking it is some empty romance novel. On the other hand romance novel fans may pick it up, and be mortified by the un-romantic contents. :P

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  3. Victoria Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    @ Luke Maciak:

    You made me go on Amazon to check out the negative reviews on the book :) I was hoping for some juicy rants but there was nothing interesting.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Victoria:

    Did you order the reviews from least favorable to most favorable? :P

    Actually, the back of the cover blurb, and the amazon synopsis give you a pretty good idea what you are in for, so there are probably not that many mistaken purchases.

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