Me? You know what they do with people like me? Brick walls, six-bed wards, two diapers a day and a visit from a mothball Santa at Christmas! I’ve got nothing. The twins are true freaks. Chick is a miracle. Me? I’m just an industrial accident! But I made it into something–me! I have to work and think to do it. And don’t forget, I was the first keeper. I’m the oldest, the son, the Binewski! This whole show is mine, the whole family. Papa was the oldest and he got the show and Grandpa’s ashes. Before me the whole place was falling apart. I’m the one who got us back on the road. When Papa goes it’ll be me.
Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn
Despite the title, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love isn’t the tale of a tragic romance between two misunderstood teens in the style of John Green. Instead, “geek” refers to carnival performers, those who make their living by showcasing wild and sometimes disgusting acts.
The narrator of Geek Love is Olympia “Oly” Binewksi, born into a family where the mother, Lil, willingly exposes herself to radiation in an attempt to genetically modify her children to create more performers for the carnival. In addition to Oly, who is a bald, albino dwarf, the Binewski clan includes Arty, a boy with flippers for hands and feet; Iphy and Elly, piano-playing Siamese twins; and Chick, physically unremarkable but with telekinetic powers. The story details Oly’s past and present: her obsession with her charismatic brother Arty, the origins of her daughter Miranda, and the deteriorating relationships between her siblings and herself.
I first picked up Geek Love after a coworker recommended it to me. The premise sounded unique and undeniably intriguing. But for some reason, it took me roughly a month to get through this book, even though it was only around 350 pages long. Admittedly, I was busy this month, but still. The book’s meandering plot and dense prose made it a difficult read at times, even though the characters themselves were immensely entertaining.
I’ve seen online reviews that complain that all the characters (excepting Chick) are completely selfish and therefore unsympathetic. I didn’t find this to be the case. Many of the characters show kindness, albeit misguided, and I found this to be realistic: in this cutthroat, messed up family, it only seemed real that the siblings would constantly be trying to outdo each other to garner more love and, ultimately, more money, from the showgoers and their parents. As it is in many families, carnival or not.
What I found most interesting about Geek Love is its subversion of the usual value system. In the Binewski family, children who are born normal (snarkily referred to as “norms”) are abandoned, while those with physical deformities are kept and cherished. Oly, despite being a bald, albino dwarf, is the least valuable child because her gifts don’t draw crowds the way that Arty and the twins do. Oly becomes a dutiful attendant to Arty and a passive observer to most of the exciting events that happen, rather than an active player. The book made me rethink how I think about standards for what is considered attractive, or even normal. Arty, despite his malicious and self-serving actions, was the most interesting character in the novel and served to provide key insights into the relationship between the Binewskis and the norms.
YES OR NO?: I’m still undecided whether I like this book. I had to force myself to finish it, and I felt that the author could have done more with the unique characters and setting she devised, perhaps by using a more focused plot. I’d recommend you try reading an excerpt to see if this book is for you, since the prose can get quite heavy. Definitely not a light read!