Books You Oughta Read Before You Kick: #3 GEEK LOVE by Katherine Dunn

Geek Love: A Novel
Geek Love by
 Katherine Dunn
original cover art
by Chip Kidd

First published in 1989, the National Book award nominee, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn is my third entry on the Books You Oughta Read Before You Kick list. It is the story of a circus family, a family of chemically induced freaks. A travelling circus couple, Art and Lily Binewski, hatch a philosophy of filial uniqueness taken to the extreme. Through some well timed drug use they breed a brood of freaks, which will sustain their inner P.T. Barnum for many years.

The story is narrated by Olympia Binewski, a hunchbacked albino dwarf and adoring sister of Arturo (Arty) the Aqua Boy. Arty is born with, you guessed it, flippers in place of arms, and later grows into a preternatural sensation. The twins Electra and Iphegenia are of the Siamese variety and perform in abject harmony on the piano. Fortunato, aka Chick, the youngest, seems normal at birth, an aberrant condition in the Binewski family, but in a timely show of telekinesis, redeems himself in his parents eyes and escapes abandonment.

I have to confess, I read this book way back in 1990, and many of the details escape my quinquagenarian memory. But I do recall the shock and awe this book inspired in my then thirty year old mind. Katherine Dunn, I thought, is way ahead of her time, brazen, and a bit cracked; in other words, my kind of author. Her darkness was on a par with the likes of David Lynch (The Elephant Man, Twin Peaks which was TV fare at the time) and Tod Browning (Freaks, Dracula), yet she had mastery of the story like say a Dickens or John Irving (another favorite of mine at the time). After reading this masterpiece of the genre, I anxiously awaited more from my latest discovery, but alas - other than a book of boxing essays (One Ring Circus), a photographic study of homicide (Death Scenes), and a brief book of questions and answers (Why Do Men Have Nipples) - zilch has spouted from her pen to date.

Geek Love allegorically celebrates the cult of the geek, that noir fraternity of social outcasts and oddballs, with their un-perfect bodies, their unconventional personae. With Arturo the Aqua Boy's rise to cult hero, Dunn makes her hyperbolic point: his followers are voluntary amputees, sacrificing their limbs in supplication to their idol. This brings to mind the Ellen Jamesians of Irving's The World According to Garp who happily lopped off their tongues in sympathy to their own mute icon. It seems to speak in a way to the self mutilators of the world; an ilk that everyone from the tatooed to the nipple-pierced to even the face-lifted can lay claim to. Yet Dunne uses her tale as caveat to the intolerant; She asks the questions, just what is normal and what isn't, and why do we crave acceptance from, while simultaneously rebelling against, the ideal?

  • Title: Geek Love
  • Author: Katherine Dunn
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (June 11, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375713344

Other book from Katherine Dunne include:
One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing