Book: Geek Love: A Terrifying Tale of Circus Freaks, Family, and Funhouse-Mirror Ideals By: Katherine Dunn
As I picked up the bright orange book in the “Recommended by the Staff” section at Barnes and Noble, I thought that the back cover would summarize some tawdry YA romance novel about nerds falling in love. What I found was the polar opposite. Although the “geeks” presented in the title appear in the novel, they aren’t Star Trek enthusiasts. Instead, they are circus freaks- oddities, curiosities, and geeks. Yes, there is romance, but the love referred to in the title is familial, as the story follows the lives of a carny family with extensive dysfunctions.
Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn, is a rich, horrifying, and extraordinarily captivating novel that does not get the attention it deserves. The National Book Award finalist follows the lives of the Binewskis, a family started by Al and Crystal Lil Binewski who, with various drugs and radioisotopes, decide to breed their own family freak show. Crystal Lil gives birth to four living children: Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers in place of limbs; Iphigenia and Electra, a pair of conjoined twins with contradictory personalities; Olympia, a hunchback albino dwarf who is also the narrator and protagonist of the tragic story; and Fortunato or “Chick” a plain-looking boy with telekinetic powers. These characters created by Dunn are astonishing, complex, and much more human than they appear. Each one is so deeply flawed and raw, and they leave the reader wondering who to consider their favorite.
The book is narrated by Olympia, or “Oly” Binewski, daughter of Al and Crystal Lil. It takes place in the 1980’s when Oly is thirty-eight years old and living above her daughter, Miranda, who does not know about Oly’s real identity as her mother and former freak show performer. Miranda is also a circus geek at heart with her hidden tail, but unlike the Binewski family she resents her oddities and wants to get her deformity surgically removed. Oly narrates her attempts to stop Miranda’s efforts to strip herself of the true Binewski identity while also flashing back to her childhood in the traveling freak show. As she reminisces about her past, she tells the long story of the rise and fall of the wondrous Binewski family.
Bizarre and peculiar, the Binewski family is unlike any other. Al Binewski, former circus announcer, and Crystal Lil, a circus geek who bites the heads off of live chickens as an act, fall in love in their youth and agree to create their own cabinet of curiosities. Breeding their own genetically deformed children, the unusual bunch go on the road with their own family freak show, “Binewski’s Fabulon”. As the siblings grow older, the freak show grows and eventually becomes a mobile monument, a show that everyone wants to see and eventually be a part of. Oly’s memories cover the start and slow success of the show and the empire it creates. Her flashbacks cover the elaborate and confusing relationships between the siblings; their individual fights for fame, recognition, and power; and their impacts on each other and their audience/followers.
The most interesting thing about Geek Love is the multiple themes present throughout the story. The Binewskis value their oddities and their differences from those they call “norms”, people who are connected to the rest of society. In that family, their mindset is “the stranger the better”. The siblings who are the oddest and the most unusual are considered more special, and inevitably more loved by their family members. They look down upon those who are normal and typical, and they glorify those with deformities and abstract bodies.
This novel completely changes bodily standards and family values. It tackles the ideas of genetic manipulation, cults, normalcy, and the quicksand effect of mediocrity. Dunn throws a punch and leaves readers clinging on to her words until the dismal, warped ending. Geek Love is a novel that changes perceptions and explores a group of people not focused on before. Read it-- and don’t hesitate to leave your mouth hanging open.