Literature · Novels and Novellas

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn | Book Review

geek love cover

Geek Love is a novel about a carnival family named the Binewskis. Wanting to make their own human oddities parents, Al and Crystal, use poisons and radioactive material to hopefully produce children with abnormalities. The results are Arturo (Arty) a boy with flipper-like limbs, a pair of Siamese twins named Iphy and Elly, the bald albino, hunchback dwarf Olympia (Oly) who tells most of the story, and the telekinetic boy named Chick who has a normal appearance. They take their travelling carnival show across the country and as Arty gets older he starts to take over and eventually a cult forms around him.

Wow. I’ll start out by saying Geek Love is one of the best books I’ve ever read. There will be Spoilers.

The story follows Oly at two different periods in time. One shows her as an older woman following around her daughter Miranda (who knows Oly but doesn’t know that she’s her mother). Miranda is normal despite a tail and she’s gotten caught up with a dangerous woman named Miss Lick, who Oly wants to protect her from. These parts are mainly the beginning and end of the novel. The bulk of the novel tells of Oly family history with the rest of the Binewskis.

Oly makes for an interesting main character. She can be really tough at times, but she can also be passive especially when looking at her relationship with her brother Arty, who she loved and worshipped despite him often being cruel towards her. A memorable passage that shows Oly’s tougher side is when she’s in a fetish strip club that she had followed Miranda into. There she strips down and dances around naked in all her bald, hunchback glory:

“How proud I am, dancing in the air full of eyes rubbing at me
uncovered, unable to look away because of what I am. Those
poor hoptoads behind me are silent. I’ve conquered them. 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.”

I think this indicates the strength in her character. With her abnormal appearance she doesn’t sink away in shame and shyness – instead she shows it off. Anyone, who can do this has a strong mind and will, being that most people easily succumb to feeling shame and humiliation.

She also doesn’t seem to have a clear-cut sense of morality since she doesn’t often condemn her father or Arty’s actions. With her father, Al, he desires to have children born with deformities to exploit in his carnival. So much that he’s willing to give up children that come out as normal (Chick is almost given up before his telekinetic abilities are discovered). Other kids besides the four came out deformed as well but ended up dead and are displayed in jars. What Al’s doing is never really seen as bad and Oly doesn’t really go out of her way to condemn what her father does.

Her brother Arty the aquaboy is a main attraction to the carnival. Once he gets older people become captivated by his speeches and such, this eventually leads to a cult being formed around him. Al and Crystal basically fall into the background when their son takes over, and Oly begins to see them as pathetic. She also follows and obeys her brother unconditionally, always wanting to remain useful to him.

She shows some disdain for those who follow her brother but keeps loving him. Arty’s cult, known as the “Arturan Cult” is a big part of the story. Basically, it’s a cult where people purposely amputate their limbs (done via a surgeon Arty employed for the carnival)– starting with fingers and toes and then gradually more (whole arms, legs, etc). Doing this, according to Arty, seems to make people better and free them. This cult grows big and the Binewski family essentially falls apart.

Disfigurement, birth defects, etc are seen as negative across all cultures in the world and this book kind of flips that idea. Here people are purposely seeking to be abnormal and deformity is celebrated. Instead of the perfection that humans normally seek, imperfection is sought after.

The idea that deformity brings out something better in humans is a belief that drives the narrative of the book. It begins with patriarch of the Binewski family who wants his children to be born as imperfect and abnormal as possible. Then Arty, often showing disdain for “norms,” promotes the removal of limbs as a path to better one’s self.

This leads to Miss Lick. A character that Oly sets out to kill. Not because of what the woman is doing but because she has targeted Miranda. Miss Lick’s belief is that disfiguring women makes them better and helps them reach their potential. She thinks men finding them attractive is what holds them back from true greatness. However, her underlying motivation could simply be jealousy being that she isn’t a conventionally attractive woman herself. So she personally selects women and does procedures to make them unattractive. Miranda becomes a target. A passage that describes Miss Lick’s supposed motivations:

“Miss Lick’s purpose is to liberate women who are to be exploited
by male hungers. These exploitable women are, in Miss Lick’s view,
the pretty ones. She feels great pity for them. Linda’s transformation
gave her the idea. If all these pretty women could shed the traits that made men want them (their prettiness) then they would no longer depend on their own exploitability but would use their talents and intelligence to become powerful.”

Although Arty, Al and Miss Lick may have different motivations it all comes down to what inner personal gains get through being away. In a way, being unconventional means a sense of freedom. Freedom from the standards of society and personal growth. On the other hand, all of them eventually fail and meet their demise.  Each of them also show cracks in their ideas – Arty likes to mainly have sexual relationships with “norm girls,” Al could mainly want money (at one point he starts paying attention to the normal-looking Chick who is able to pickpocket with his telekinetic abilities), and Miss Lick could just plain be jealous of beautiful women.

Chick is a significant character in the novel. He looks normal on the outside but has great abilities. Eventually he replaces Arty’s first surgeon, being able to use his ability as a painkiller and more. Chick is the biggest marvel the Binewskis produce. However, staying at the carnival his abilities are very regulated – first he’s his father’s tool then Arty’s. It seems the text mainly wants to frame freakhood as based in outward appearance.

Now for the other Binewski siblings — Elly and Iphy’s role in the novel seems to be to show the extent in which Arty can abuse his siblings. When he finds out they’ve been prostituting themselves he forces them to marry someone terrible. And at one point has Elly lobotomized. So basically if someone crosses him they end up paying for it. Especially if he hurts his ego. Despite his god-like persona he still succumbs to illogical human emotions.

Which leads to a another point – there’s incest undertones in the novel. Iphy had romantic feelings for Arty, much to Elly’s dismay. He seemed to return the feelings to some extent which is why he felt so betrayed. Olly also feels romantic love for her brother – to the point she has Chick telepathically implant some of Arty’s sperm in her to have a baby. (Remember, I said it was weird) The incest is never pointed out as taboo or anything among the characters. Which goes back to there being no clearcut sense of morality.

Miranda is the result of Oly’s pregnancy. She and Oly know each other but Miranda doesn’t know her true origins. She also enjoys drawing her mother naked. Eventually Miss Lick is killed and the girl is saved. However, Oly meets her end too. Does this mean the Binewski legacy is over? Perhaps, but Oly leaves behind notes that will tell her daughter everything. Who knows what she will do with the information or how it will inspire her.

Final Thoughts:

Geek Love’s bizarreness is unflinching and I respect that in the book. It really takes one out of the sense of normalcy in the world with its unconventional main character. It’s also just a great book to read all around, never a dull moment.  This is definitely going on my favorites list.


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