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Katherine Dunn – Geek Love

November 19, 2007

112. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989)

Length: 348 pages

Genre: Literary fiction

Started: 13 Nov 2007
Finished: 19 Nov 2007

4 out of 5 stars.

geek
(slang) –noun
1. a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, esp. one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.
2. a computer expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often considered offensive when used by outsiders.)
3. a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, such as biting off the head of a live chicken.


Summary: Al and Lily Binewski, owners of a faltering carnival, decide to breed their own freak show using the aid of drugs and radiation. This book tells the story of the Binewski siblings: Arty the Aqua Boy, with flippers instead of arms and legs; the siamese twins Elly and Iphy; the albino hunchback dwarf Olympia, our narrator, whose “everyday” mutations make her the least valuable sibling; and Chick, who outwardly appears to be a “norm” but has mental powers beyond imagining. The sideshow nature of their lives sets the Binewski children in a bizarre world of sibling rivalry, where love mixes with fear, jealousy, competition, devotion, and the fervent, inborn need to be as unique as possible.

Review: I’m having a hard time gauging my reaction to this book. I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed it, or even liked it, really… but I was absolutely fascinated by it. Once I got past the first few chapters I couldn’t stop reading it. I enjoyed the flashback chapters where Oly tells about her childhood (which are in the majority) much more than the “framing” chapters set in the present, which focus on Oly and her daughter. The writing style was a little difficult – vignettes are presented almost entirely from Oly’s point of view, so the reader is frequently left to parse out what the other characters are thinking and what actually happened – but it was incredibly vivid and capable of packing a hefty descriptive punch into a few sentences. My main problem, I think, was the characters. They were all fascinating, but none of them were even remotely likeable except maybe Chick. By relatively early on, I absolutely hated Arty, and hated everyone else for going along with his egomaniacal manipulations without showing a sliver of spine. I never bought into Arturism, either the public cult following or the more intimate cult of family he spins around himself. Yet, at the same time, I was completely engrossed by their story. Essentially, Dunn pulls off the admirable trick of making this book very much like a trip to the sideshow she describes – you are in turns horrified and repulsed by what you’re seeing, but you can’t bring yourself to look away.

Recommendation: Not for those with weak stomachs or delicate sensibilities, for sure. For everyone else… read at your own risk. Despite the fact that I thought it was quite good, I can’t bring myself to actually recommend it, but if you think it looks interesting, then it’s worth the read.

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Vocab:

  • p. 6: “‘It was fun.’ Lil nodded. ‘But I felt that it wasn’t my true métier.’” – a field of work or other activity in which one has special ability or training.
  • p. 80: “Chick sat up beside me, his fuzzy hair frowzled, and patted my cheeks with his tiny hands.” – in disarray; extremely disorderly.
One Comment leave one →
  1. May 19, 2011 12:50 am

    I had the exact same reaction. Glad to know I wasn’t the only one!

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