Dunn's geeks do not tape together their broken glasses or hide from large groups at social events. Instead, they soak up the spotlight on stage, taking pride in missing limbs and deformities as adoring fans quite literally worship them in cult-like ways. Geeks are carnival freaks, and Geek Love is a novel about the traveling Binewskis, a seriously dysfunctional carny family.
When Al Binewski realizes his family's good ol' fashioned traveling show is lacking a truly marvelous act, he decides to recruit his wife (trapeze artist and live chicken eater), Crystal Lil, to breed a family of freaks. Feeding her lots and lots of drugs and after several botched pregnancies, they create: Arturo the Aquaman (flippers for arms and legs), Iphy & Elly (twins joined at the waist), Olympia (bald albino dwarf hunchback) and Fortunato AKA Chick (a "norm" with dangerous powers.)
Olympia tells the story from her own perspective, which ends up being like a long, thrilling and often times nauseating (but in a good way?) carnival ride. The book is hilarious, disgusting and completely heart-breaking. In Dunn's world, freaks are beautiful and anyone else is ugly and base. With a completely foreign backdrop, Dunn showcases the ugliness of power and greed and has you second-guess you're own opinions of "normal."
Dunn's profound reflections on parental love, motive for procreation and family value are worth noting, especially considering the story is told by a child for most of the novel. Particularly, the reversal of maternal roles with children and their parents, or, more interestingly, the portrayal of youth/infanthood as not the age of innocence, but as the age of pure insight due to barbarism.
Here is my favorite "Wow" excerpt:
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. ... How deep and sticky is the darkness of childhood, how rigid the blades of infant evil, which is unadulterated, unrestrained by the convenient cushions of age and its civilizing anesthesia. Grownups can deal with scraped knees, dropped ice-cream cones, and lost dollies, but if they suspected the real reasons we cry they would fling us out of their arms in horrified revulsion. ... We need that warm adult stupidity. ... We make do with it rather than face alone the cavernous reaches of our skulls for which there is no remedy, no safety, no comfort at all. We survive until, by sheer stamina, we escape into the dim innocence of our own adulthood and its forgetfulness. (105-106)Katherine Dunn (pictured above) is a great writer and radio personality from Portland who is most famous for covering the boxing world as a journalist. She has contributed extensively to the outstanding Willamette Weekly. Check out Geek Love (1989), an oldie but goodie, if you can handle dark, thought-provoking, table-turning plot. After all, it was nominated for a National Book Award!