How is traditional beauty defined? Is it tall, blonde, and big-breasted (ahem) or is it something else? What if the more malformed, grotesque, and disfigured you were, the more your family valued you? In Geek Love by Katherine Dunn the tables have been absolutely dumped on top of society’s preconceived notions of beauty. Al Binewski–ring-leader of a failing traveling carnival–decides to feed his wife Lil an ever-increasing and odd cocktail of drugs and chemicals, in the hopes that each of their children will be freaks in some way. The better the freaks they bore, the more money the show would make. And guess what?
“Crystal” Lil gives birth to Arturo the fish boy (with flippers instead of limbs), Electra and Iphigenia the piano-playing Siamese twins, Olympia the bald hunchbacked dwarf, and Chick–a disappointingly normal-looking child with strange psychic abilties. (Not to mention a baker’s dozen of freakish miscarriages displayed in glass jars…) The carnival thrives under the influence of these adolescent oddities. At least until Arturo’s quest for fame and fortune takes an abrupt, cult-like, and sinister turn.
The narrator of the story is Olympia, and she chronicles her family’s triumphs and tragedies with the detached air of a casual acquaintance. Except for Arty. She adores him and do anything he asked of her. But when Olympia’s extreme love for her brother takes a perverse (and unexpected) turn–there are consequences the likes of which not even carnival freaks could have predicted.
Geek Love was a strange book. At times I wanted to hug Olympia for what she’d been through, and other times I wanted to smack her for her unwarranted adulation of Arty. I HATED HIM. What a slippery, flippery little asshole. Seriously. He ruined so many people’s lives throughout that book it was ridiculous. And his following was out of this world. People loved him. They believed him. The little snake…
I really enjoyed reading about such an unusual cast of characters. In most books, there’s a handsome guy and a beautiful girl and they inevitably fall in love and go on all sorts of amazing adventures. Not so within this story. Al Binewski almost abandoned his youngest son Chick at a grocery store because he looked TOO normal. He was a huge disappointment until his powers were revealed. I love this stuff. (I’m sick, I know. I watch shows all about the Half-Ton Man and the 100lb Tumor on TLC. It’s my guilty pleasure, so sue me!) I liked the extraordinary element that Dunn breathed to life.
That being said, I wish Olympia had been a bit more emotionally involved with the whole plot. Some pretty heinous things were happening all around her, yet I never felt like she was as “with it” as she should have been. Maybe it’s just because my point of reference isn’t the same–having decidedly NOT been born into a traveling show of circus freaks–although since my parents don’t read this–close enough… I also wish the story wasn’t told in flashback form, because Olympia’s time with the show was much more entertaining than her present day life. Dunn could have skipped the part about Mary Lick completely and the book wouldn’t have suffered for it.
I would recommend this book to anyone with a curiosity to the strange, reverence to the weird, and an admiration of oddities.
Step right up.
It really gave me something to think about…
What if the ugliest among us were the most revered?
3 carnival abortions of 5