Let’s start at the beginning, when you are still innocent and serene. You may know that this book is about a family of carnies, or like me, you may not since you went through a period where you only bought books based on their covers and refused to read the blurbs (And this book has a great cover, let me tell you). It’s possible you thought this book was going to be about two socially and romantically challenged geeks who just want so much to find that special someone (which in retrospect is really dumb since you aren’t really a fan of romance novels). Or maybe – if you had read the blurb, you still think this story is going to be about some geek loving, just inside the backdrop of a messed up freak show family all vying for supremacy within the carnival world (which, to be fair, is closer to the truth…) Even a page or two in you may still be feeling very innocent, after all the story starts so innocently itself. A lovely family image; all the children sitting around their parents, listening intently as their father tells them the stories of their beginnings, the children chirping in at their favourite parts, the mother correcting her husband’s exaggerations of her beauty and her talent. But. Well. It turns out there are multiple meanings of the word geek…
This is actually the second time that I have read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I first read it a few years ago, but since it is being re-released in the UK this week, I thought I would do a quick re-read and review. I am glad that I re-read it and I wish that I had the opportunity to re-read more books. I loved this book the first time round, but now that I know the story I am getting to really immerse myself in the characters and the beauty of Dunn’s writing. But before I get ahead of myself, why don’t I tell you what this story is about.
This is the story of the Binewski family and their traveling carnival. Aloysius Binewski was running the carnival with his father when times started to get tough. Al and his new bride Lillian, or Crystal Lil, are struggling for ideas, for fame and riches. Then Al comes up with a brilliant idea; he’ll breed his own freak show. Crystal Lil is all onboard with the idea, after all “what greater gift could you offer your child than the inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?” So begins a life of ingesting amphetamines, arsenic and radioisotopes “to breed their own exhibit of human oddities”. Their results are spectacular (or terrifying). Although they have many mishaps, they end up with 4 (or 5?) special children; Arturo, or Aquaboy, with fins for arms and legs; Elly and Iphy, twins conjoined at the waist; Oly, a bald albino hunchback dwarf; and Fortunato, or the Chick, whose mysterious telekinesis allows him to be a freak, while maintaining the deception of being a norm.
The story is narrated by Oly, a grown up Oly who lives in a building with her mother and her daughter, Miranda; although neither Miranda nor Crystal Lil know it. Oly’s sole purpose in life is the protection of Miranda and her… oddity. See Miranda is the product of Oly and her brother Arty, via the Chick (don’t ask… you have to read it) and so is a bit of a freak herself. Her uniqueness has come under peril from the formidable Miss Lick, who likes to destroy beauty and so Oly must do what she can to protect Miranda, without ever letting it slip as to why. Being a freak is the most important thing in the world to Oly, it’s what her father taught her and it is what she is trying to teach her daughter, albeit from afar – “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.” This whole novel is basically a letter to Miranda telling her where she comes from.
Oly tells Miranda of her childhood. Oly, who although being a bald albino hunchback dwarf, is not really enough of a freak to make any money at the carnival. Instead her father trains her to call people to the shows and she does a lot of menial tasks for her siblings, mostly Arty. Oly is in love with Arty, she will do anything for him and quite often lies for him. You see Arty has a bit of a superiority complex, and by bit I actually mean a rip roaring superiority complex the size of China. Arty is insanely jealous when his sisters make more money than him and he can’t stand ‘the norms’, those us like you and I. He believes them inferior and is hell bent on ‘conquering’ them (yes, I used that word on purpose). “We are the things that come to the norms in nightmares. The thing that lurks in the bell tower and bites out the choirboys – that’s you Oly. And the thing in the closet that makes the babies scream in the dark before it sucks their last breath – that’s me.” Arty will stop at nothing to take control of the carnival, and the world if he can manage it; and he’ll take down anyone, including his family, to get there.
Currently I am in the midst of Arty becoming a world famous cult leader. It’s pretty awesome; Dunn has a way of making even the most unlikeable characters loveable. You feel for them, while hating them; although they would all most likely scorn your feelings. This story is about so many things, there are so many interweaving and interconnecting themes, I am sure that I have missed many of them. It’s about the intricacies of families, the complicated relationships and feelings involved; especially when they are all competing for greatness. It’s about children learning the fallibilities of their parents “It is, I suppose the common grief of children at having to protect their parents from reality. It is bitter for the young to see what awful innocence adults grow into, that terrible vulnerability that must be sheltered from the rodent mire of childhood”. Surprisingly, and I don’t think that I noticed this on my first read through, there is a large feminist theme. The strongest characters in this novel are female, they are woman surviving and thriving in traditional male roles. They are woman who spend years living under the shadows of men, only to show their own worth and power. Miss Lick destroys beauty so that woman can succeed in their lives using their brains and not their beauty. There is also woman who has performed abdominal surgery on herself…
This book is weird; I am not going to deny that. But if you’ve noticed, I have used a lot of quotes in this review. The book may be weird, but the writing is absolutely beautiful. I don’t know how to describe it other than beautiful, so I wanted to make sure you could see it for yourself. I would actually recommend that if you read this and like it, read it again. The first read through is about the shock and awe, it’s about the freaks and the gruesomeness. The second time around you see the beauty of what Dunn has created. I definitely recommend Geek Love to anyone with a fancy for carnivals, drug experimentation, world domination, cults, red hair, microwave dinners, incredible story lines or genius writing.
The perfect twa for this book is glaringly obvious! Cotton Candy is a rooibos tea from Davids; a combination of nut brittle, candied mango and cotton candy sprinkles. I really feel there is nothing left to be said about this perfect combination of book and tea!