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  • Written by Katherine Dunn
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  • Written by Katherine Dunn
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A Novel

Written by Katherine DunnAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Katherine Dunn

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: May 25, 2011
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-307-79448-2
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Geek Love is the story of the Binewskis, a carny family whose mater- and paterfamilias set out–with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes–to breed their own exhibit of human oddities. There’s Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs and a megalomaniac ambition worthy of Genghis Khan . . . Iphy and Elly, the lissome Siamese twins . . . albino hunchback Oly, and the outwardly normal Chick, whose mysterious gifts make him the family’s most precious–and dangerous–asset.

As the Binewskis take their act across the backwaters of the U.S., inspiring fanatical devotion and murderous revulsion; as its members conduct their own Machiavellian version of sibling rivalry, Geek Love throws its sulfurous light on our notions of the freakish and the normal, the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and the obscene. Family values will never be the same.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

1

The Nuclear Family: His Talk, Her Teeth

"When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing. 'Spread your lips, sweet Lil,' they'd cluck, 'and show us your choppers!' "

This same Crystal Lil, our star-haired mama, sitting snug on the built-in sofa that was Arty's bed at night, would chuckle at the sewing in her lap and shake her head. "Don't piffle to the children, Al. Those hens ran like whiteheads."

Nights on the road this would be, between shows and towns in some campground or pull-off, with the other vans and trucks and trailers of Binewski's Carnival Fabulon ranged up around us, safe in our portable village.

After supper, sitting with full bellies in the lamp glow, we Binewskis were supposed to read and study. But if it rained the story mood would sneak up on Papa. The hiss and tick on the metal of our big living van distracted him from his papers. Rain on a show night was catastrophe. Rain on the road meant talk, which, for Papa, was pure pleasure.

"It's a shame and a pity, Lil," he'd say, "that these offspring of yours should only know the slumming summer geeks from Yale."

"Princeton, dear," Mama would correct him mildly. "Randall will be a sophomore this fall. I believe he's our first Princeton boy."

We children would sense our story slipping away to trivia. Arty would nudge me and I'd pipe up with, "Tell about the time when Mama was the geek!" and Arty and Elly and Iphy and Chick would all slide into line with me on the floor between Papa's chair and Mama.

Mama would pretend to be fascinated by her sewing and Papa would tweak his swooping mustache and vibrate his tangled eyebrows, pretending reluctance. "WellIll . . ." he'd begin, "it was a long time ago . . ."

"Before we were born!"

"Before . . ." he'd proclaim, waving an arm in his grandest ringmaster style, "before I even dreamed you, my dreamlets!"

"I was still Lillian Hinchcliff in those days," mused Mama. "And when your father spoke to me, which was seldom and reluctantly, he called me 'Miss.' "

"Miss!" we would giggle. Papa would whisper to us loudly, as though Mama couldn't hear, "Terrified! I was so smitten I'd stutter when I tried to talk to her. 'M-M-M-Miss . . .' I'd say."

We'd giggle helplessly at the idea of Papa, the GREAT TALKER, so flummoxed.

"I, of course, addressed your father as Mister Binewski."

"There I was," said Papa, "hosing the old chicken blood and feathers out of the geek pit on the morning of July 3rd and congratulating myself for having good geek posters, telling myself I was going to sell tickets by the bale because the weekend of the Fourth is the hottest time for geeks and I had a fine, brawny geek that year. Enthusiastic about the work, he was. So I'm hosing away, feeling very comfortable and proud of myself, when up trips your mama, looking like angelfood, and tells me my geek has done a flit in the night, folded his rags as you might say, and hailed a taxi for the airport. He leaves a note claiming his pop is very sick and he, the geek, must retire from the pit and take his fangs home to Philadelphia to run the family bank."

"Brokerage, dear," corrects Mama.

"And with your mama, Miss Hinchcliff, standing there like three scoops of vanilla I can't even cuss! What am I gonna do? The geek posters are all over town!"

"It was during a war, darlings," explains Mama. "I forget which one precisely. Your father had difficulty getting help at that time or he never would have hired me, even to make costumes, as inexperienced as I was."

"So I'm standing there fuddled from breathing Miss Hinchcliff's Midnight Marzipan perfume and cross-eyed with figuring. I couldn't climb into the pit myself because I was doing twenty jobs already. I couldn't ask Horst the Cat Man because he was a vegetarian to begin with, and his dentures would disintegrate the first time he hit a chicken neck anyhow. Suddenly your mama pops up for all the world like she was offering me sherry and biscuits. 'I'll do it, Mr. Binewski,' she says, and I just about sent a present to my laundryman."

Mama smiled sweetly into her sewing and nodded. "I was anxious to prove myself useful to the show. I'd been with Binewski's Fabulon only two weeks at the time and I felt very keenly that I was on trial."

"So I says," interrupts Papa, " 'But, miss, what about your teeth?' Meaning she might break 'em or chip 'em, and she smiles wide, just like she's smiling now, and says, 'They're sharp enough, I think!' "

We looked at Mama and her teeth were white and straight, but of course by that time they were all false.

"I looked at her delicate little jaw and I just groaned. 'No,' I says, 'I couldn't ask you to . . .' but it did flash into my mind that a blonde and lovely geek with legs--I mean your mama has what we refer to in the trade as LEGS--would do the business no real harm. I'd never heard of a girl geek before and the poster possibilities were glorious. Then I thought again, No . . . she couldn't . . ."

"What your papa didn't know was that I'd watched the geek several times and of course I'd often helped Minna, our cook at home, when she slaughtered a fowl for the table. I had him. He had no choice but to give me a try."

"Oh, but I was scared spitless when her first show came up that afternoon! Scared she'd be disgusted and go home to Boston. Scared she'd flub the deal and have the crowd screaming for their money back. Scared she'd get hurt . . . A chicken could scratch her or peck an eye out quick as a blink."

"I was quite nervous myself," nodded Mama.

"The crowd was good. A hot Saturday that was, and the Fourth of July was the Sunday. I was running like a geeked bird the whole day myself, and just had time to duck behind the pit for one second before I stood up front to lead in the mugs. There she was like a butterfly . . ."

"I wore tatters really, white because it shows the blood so well even in the dark of the pit."

"But such artful tatters! Such low-necked, slit-to-the-thigh, silky tatters! So I took a deep breath and went out to talk 'em in. And in they went. A lot of soldiers in the crowd. I was still selling tickets when the cheers and whistles started inside and the whooping and stomping on those old wood bleachers drew even more people. I finally grabbed a popcorn kid to sell tickets and went inside to see for myself."

Papa grinned at Mama and twiddled his mustache.

"I'll never forget," he chuckled.

"I couldn't growl, you see, or snarl convincingly So I sang," explained Mama.

"Happy little German songs! In a high, thin voice!"

"Franz Schubert, my dears."

"She fluttered around like a dainty bird, and when she caught those ugly squawking hens you couldn't believe she'd actually do anything. When she went right ahead and geeked 'em that whole larruping crowd went bonzo wild. There never was such a snap and twist of the wrist, such a vampire flick of the jaws over a neck or such a champagne approach to the blood. She'd shake her star-white hair and the bitten-off chicken head would skew off into the corner while she dug her rosy little fingernails in and lifted the flopping, jittering carcass like a golden goblet, and sipped! Absolutely sipped at the wriggling guts! She was magnificent, a princess, a Cleopatra, an elfin queen! That was your mama in the geek pit.

"People swarmed her act. We built more bleachers, moved her into the biggest top we had, eleven hundred capacity, and it was always jammed."

"It was fun." Lil nodded. "But I felt that it wasn't my true metier."

"Yeah." Papa would half frown, looking down at his hands, quieted suddenly.

Feeling the story mood evaporate, one of us children would coax, "What made you quit, Mama?"

She would sigh and look up from under her spun-glass eyebrows at Papa and then turn to where we were huddled on the floor in a heap and say softly, "I had always dreamed of flying. The Antifermos, the Italian trapeze clan, joined the show in Abilene and I begged them to teach me." Then she wasn't talking to us anymore but to Papa. "And, Al, you know you would never have got up the nerve to ask for my hand if I hadn't fallen and got so bunged up. Where would we be now if I hadn't?"

Papa nodded, "Yes, yes, and I made you walk again just fine, didn't I?" But his face went flat and smileless and his eyes went to the poster on the sliding door to their bedroom. It was old silvered paper, expensive, with the lone lush figure of Mama in spangles and smile, high-stepping with arms thrown up so her fingers, in red elbow-length gloves, touched the starry letters arching "CRYSTAL LIL" above her.

My father's name was Aloysius Binewski. He was raised in a traveling carnival owned by his father and called "Binewski's Fabulon." Papa was twenty-four years old when Grandpa died and the carnival fell into his hands. Al carefully bolted the silver urn containing his father's ashes to the hood of the generator truck that powered the midway. The old man had wandered with the show for so long that his dust would have been miserable left behind in some stationary vault.

Times were hard and, through no fault of young Al's, business began to decline. Five years after Grandpa died, the once flourishing carnival was fading.

The show was burdened with an aging lion that repeatedly broke expensive dentures by gnawing the bars of his cage; demands for cost-of living increases from the fat lady, whose food supply was written into her contract; and the midnight defection of an entire family of animal eroticists, taking their donkey, goat, and Great Dane with them.

The fat lady eventually jumped ship to become a model for a magazine called Chubby Chaser. My father was left with a cut-rate, diesel-fueled fire-eater and the prospect of a very long stretch in a trailer park outside of Fort Lauderdale.

Al was a standard-issue Yankee, set on self-determination and independence, but in that crisis his core of genius revealed itself. He decided to breed his own freak show.

My mother, Lillian Hinchcliff, was a water-cool aristocrat from the fastidious side of Boston's Beacon Hill, who had abandoned her heritage and joined the carnival to become an aerialist. Nineteen is late to learn to fly and Lillian fell, smashing her elegant nose and her collarbones. She lost her nerve but not her lust for sawdust and honky-tonk lights. It was this passion that made her an eager partner in Al's scheme. She was willing to chip in on any effort to renew public interest in the show. Then, too, the idea of inherited security was ingrained from her childhood. As she often said, "What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?"

The resourceful pair began experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes. My mother developed a complex dependency on various drugs during this process, but she didn't mind. Relying on Papa's ingenuity to keep her supplied, Lily seemed to view her addiction as a minor by-product of their creative collaboration.

Their firstborn was my brother Arturo, usually known as Aqua Boy. His hands and feet were in the form of flippers that sprouted directly from his torso without intervening arms or legs. He was taught to swim in infancy and was displayed nude in a big clear-sided tank like an aquarium. His favorite trick at the ages of three and four was to put his face close to the glass, bulging his eyes out at the audience, opening and closing his mouth like a river bass, and then to turn his back and paddle off, revealing the turd trailing from his muscular little buttocks. Al and Lil laughed about it later, but at the time it caused them great consternation as well as the nuisance of sterilizing the tank more often than usual. As the years passed, Arty donned trunks and became more sophisticated, but it's been said, with some truth, that his attitude never really changed.

My sisters, Electra and Iphigenia, were born when Arturo was two years old and starting to haul in crowds. The girls were Siamese twins with perfect upper bodies joined at the waist and sharing one set of hips and legs. They usually sat and walked and slept with their long arms around each other. They were, however, able to face directly forward by allowing the shoulder of one to overlap the other. They were always beautiful, slim, and huge-eyed. They studied the piano and began performing piano duets at an early age. Their compositions for four hands were thought by some to have revolutionized the twelve-tone scale.

I was born three years after my sisters. My father spared no expense in these experiments. My mother had been liberally dosed with cocaine, amphetamines, and arsenic during her ovulation and throughout her pregnancy with me. It was a disappointment when I emerged with such commonplace deformities. My albinism is the regular pink-eyed variety and my hump, though pronounced, is not remarkable in size or shape as humps go. My situation was far too humdrum to be marketable on the same scale as my brother's and sisters'. Still, my parents noted that I had a strong voice and decided I might be an appropriate shill and talker for the business. A bald albino hunchback seemed the right enticement toward the esoteric talents of the rest of the family. The dwarfism, which was very apparent by my third birthday, came as a pleasant surprise to the patient pair and increased my value. From the beginning I slept in the built-in cupboard beneath the sink in the family living van, and had a collection of exotic sunglasses to shield my sensitive eyes.

Despite the expensive radium treatments incorporated in his design, my younger brother, Fortunato, had a close call in being born to apparent normalcy. That drab state so depressed my enterprising parents that they immediately prepared to abandon him on the doorstep of a closed service station as we passed through Green River, Wyoming, late one night. My father had actually parked the van for a quick getaway and had stepped down to help my mother deposit the baby in the cardboard box on some safe part of the pavement. At that precise moment the two-week-old baby stared vaguely at my mother and in a matter of seconds revealed himself as not a failure at all, but in fact my parents' masterwork. It was lucky, so they named him Fortunato. For one reason and another we always called him Chick.
Katherine Dunn|Author Q&A

About Katherine Dunn

Katherine Dunn - Geek Love
Katherine Dunn lives in Oregon.

Author Q&A

Q: This is such an unusual story—where did you get the idea for it?

A:
It started as a joke. It happened because one summer day in 1979 my eight-year-old son flatly refused to go along on my favorite walk up the hills to the rose test garden in the park. I went alone, sulking, and wound up perched on a brick step glaring at the experimental roses.

The nature vs nurture debate had fascinated me for years. The potential for revelations and manipulations rising from the study of genetics was a topic for frequent and gleeful speculation over late night cocoa in my kitchen. That day the ornate roses set me thinking again about the possibility of deliberately monkeying with human DNA to breed desirable traits in our progeny as the plant folk did with these flowers. The notion always held a chilling element for me—what if human character were completely determined by genetics and physiology so that science might eventually eradicate the mystery of personality? If humans were as predictable as chemical reactions, where would stories go? Or come from?

Generally I am from the “All of the Above” school. I figure humans are far too complicated and touchy to be the product of any one line of influence, no matter how powerful. Still, in pouty moods the “what ifs” can get to me. That day they torpedoed the future of all literature by my dim lights. At least, I consoled myself sourly, I could design a more obedient child.

The sudden image of that feral and argumentative creature, my son, bovined to docility struck me as hilarious. “Whatever you say, Mom. Right away, Mom.” Never going to happen and no, I would never swap my cougar cub for some blandly compliant herbivore.

This realization brightened my mood so much that I fell to playing in my head. I can’t recall precisely after all these years, but my hypothesizing certainly ran along lines like this:

• Say dramatic manipulation of DNA in utero or before conception actually became possible.

• There would be fashions and fads. You would know a person’s vintage by their complexion, stature, and I.Q. “Oh yeah, she’s from the 2040s. That was the era of arched Pontiac noses, curly hair, an easy grasp of higher mathematics, but marginal social skills.” Or, “Can you believe the small feet they’re giving kids these days? Don’t tell me the shoe companies aren’t pushing that style. You notice the prices haven’t gone down despite the money they’re saving in materials. . . .”

• Infants would emerge from the womb with designer labels in birthmarks on the napes of their necks. Design wars would flare over chin clefts and buttock dimples. Cheap discount versions would all come out with the same fingerprints or a tendency, which would only appear long after the warranty had expired, to wear plaid pants.

• Naturally, everybody would want their children strong, resistant to disease, and cheerful of temperament. But governments would impose uniform “safety” requirements—all citizens must be placid, gullible, reverent to authority, and willing to stand in lines. A vision of marching rows of tall, clear-eyed blondes reminded me that totalitarian regimes had already tried this kind of bio-social engineering with hideous results. But that was before sufficient technology was available.

Perfection is boring, but that would be the alleged aim. So . . . Who would want something more interesting? The answer was simple and inevitable. A carnival, of course. A freak show. In that context the more unusual you are, the more valuable you are. It would reverse the view. This struck me as enormously exciting fun.

Having moped up the hill, I was almost bouncing on the way down.

By the time I made it to the pens and paper on my work table, it had occurred to me that the compounded isolation created by physical differences and the rootless traveling of an old-fashioned circus carnival made it prime turf for a cult. The cult phenomenon had occupied my nightmares since the Jonestown massacre in Guyana. Here was a way to explore that monster from other angles. Then too, any group of people in extended proximity develop alliances and rivalries, power struggles and intense emotional connections, which opens all those doors. . . .

It began as a joke. When a joke is prodded and stretched and you climb inside and walk around, it changes. When I started to think about what it would actually be like to be a member of the Binewski clan, the Binewskis became real for me. The book took many years to write because it took me that long to imagine it all—to live it. Sometimes I thought of it as my own private autism, the place out at the far end of the shock wave when my brain exploded.

Q: The epigraph, the chapter titles, and the strange names of the family all seem connected. What do they signify?

A: All these items are meant to carry a tone of flickering levity—dark, dry or bumptious depending on where they occur.

The Epigraph:
For my own pleasure and convenience during the writing, the main characters each had a theme song, of sorts. Something for me to remember them by. Something that seemed to pinpoint their essential identity for me. For example, Olympia and Chick were announced in my head by quotations from the poems of William Blake. For Chick it was, “If the child is born a boy/ he’s given to a woman old/ Who nails him down upon a rock/ and catches his shrieks in cups of gold.” Oly’s was, “Little creature/ born of joy and mirth/ go love without the help/ of anything on earth.”

Arturo’s sign post was from Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” The old magician, Prospero, is accepting responsibility for the demonic imp Caliban when he says, “This thing, of darkness I Acknowledge, mine.”

When the book was finished I realized that Arty’s theme belonged to the whole book, so I set it there at the beginning.

The Chapter Titles:
The old picaresque novels use the convention of the chapter title—in part perhaps because so many of them ran serially in newspapers and the titles served as headlines. . . . “In Which Our Hero Loses That Which He Can Scarcely Spare . . . ” or “Our Hero, Bolting, Comes a Cropper.” I love that kind of fun and it seemed appropriate for this book. The titles serve many purposes. They are clues to the contents, commentaries on the action, and tone setters. Most of them are meant to be sardonically humorous, reminding the reader that no matter how dark the coming passages may be, the soothing light of absurdity will show the way.

The Family Names:
Sometimes naming fictional characters is a lot like naming real babies. You come up with a name before you know much about them as individuals. You pick a name that represents an idea of what you want them to be.

I wanted the carnival family to be a classic all-American mix, rootless originals spliced into something new. The name Binewski was part of a rhyming pet name my mother used to call us kids when we were growing up. “Now, my little Rooski Binooski,” she’d say. It has a nice middle-European rhythm. Aloysius (which I pronounce “allo-wishes”) is a stereotypical Irish name. Lillian Hinchcliff is the snooty WASP/English contingent. The children have Greek or Italian names, partly to suggest a kind of ostentation by the parents, and partly for the lyric bombast native to the show world of carnivals and circuses.

Arturo suggests artifice. His man-made quality, along with deception.

Fortunato, meaning Lucky, is ironical considering what happens to the poor little bug. He’s called Chick, a fuzzy, vulnerable newborn thing.

Electra and Iphigenia are the two daughters of King Agamemnon in the Greek tragedies. The king slaughters Iphigenia in sacrifice to the gods to gain a fair wind for his ships to sail to the Trojan war. Electra later helps her brother wreak revenge on her father’s murderers.

Olympia is the high, cool mountain home of the Greek gods. It is also the name of a cheap, watery beer commonly known as Oly.

Q: What kind of research did you do for this book?

A: Over a medium lifetime I’d known several people who were disabled or who were configured in original ways. I thought about them a lot. Of course I’d seen Tod Browning’s film, Freaks, and I’ve heard of the film, Nightmare Alley but have not yet seen it. I did a lot of clinical reading on two basic topics: physical anomaly and cults of various kinds. Some of Arturo’s speeches are modeled on the rambling sermons of Jim Jones to his followers in Guyana during the weeks leading up to the mass murder/suicide. I’ve always loved circuses and carnivals, and I took every chance that came my way to hang around midways, sniffing and snooping.

Q: Inside its highly imaginative storyline, GEEK LOVE takes on some pretty heavy issues such as our concepts of beauty, organized religion, and capitalistic greed, among others. Were you aiming to make a statement with this book?

A: Certainly. I intended to make a lot of statements, which is why it took all those pages. If I’d only had one thing to rant about I could have put it in a letter to the editor.

One thing that fascinates me is the variety of ways people have read the book. A writer for a parenting publication saw it as an exposé of the way American parents exploit and abuse their children. A former fashion writer saw it as an indictment of shallow concepts of beauty. A writer for a newsletter for the disabled declared she couldn’t decide whether it was the best thing for disability rights ever to come down the pike or one long, ghastly crip joke. Gay men and women have described it as a metaphor for all outsiders. Of course I’m only mentioning positive stuff. The point is, everybody reads a different book. That’s more than fine with me.

Q: GEEK LOVE inspired some pretty strong reaction upon its publication in 1989, mostly criticism for its controversial subject matter. What did/do you think about this reaction?

A: When you’re immersed in a world for years at a time it comes to seem normal. It’s easy to lose track of how other people might view it. While there were some positive reviews, there were also virulent attacks. At first I was surprised at the fuss. And I was embarrassed and sorry that my editor and even some bookstores took flack about it. But I was also pleased. I’d hoped it was not a safe or easy book. It challenged me in the writing, and I hoped it would challenge readers. At least nobody that I heard about was calling it boring. I thought some of the criticism was silly. Some was cogent but I, of course, disagreed. No book appeals to everybody.

I did feel bad for the Polish Anti-Defamation League, which interpreted the entire book as a slur against people of Polish descent because of the family name, Binewski. That was never my intention. Not for an instant.

Q: The book has achieved a kind of cult status among your readers. What do you think of this? Do you still hear from people about the book?

A: Yes, I’m grateful that readers do still write to me and they’re not all furious. Some members of the Little People of America have been generous with supportive comments. That means a lot to me. Then there are the stump fetishists, amputation lovers, whom many view as mere party animals, but who are, in my experience, remarkably sensitive with just a tad more flair than is customary in the mainstream.

Some artists have used the book as a launching pad for their own work, and that astounds and delights me. Painters and photographers have done marvelous visual images of characters and incidents from the book, or fresh stuff inspired by it. A few musicians have written songs. One talented group of theater people in Chicago wrote and staged a tough, smart, funny operetta a year or so ago and they’re talking about doing it again in Los Angeles. There have been several other stage productions and public readings. It’s such a kick when people do this. They arc off into wild directions that are completely their own but if they choose to claim the Geek as their trampoline, it gives me what I suppose is a sort of grandma feeling. Look at the clever darlings!

As for the “cult” thing, that word makes me edgy for reasons that are probably obvious to anybody who’s read the book.

Q: You are and have been a freelance boxing writer for various publications for many years. Why boxing?

A: Why not boxing? It’s a marginalized, maligned subculture of individualism in an increasingly group oriented society. Boxing operates in the full spectrum of ugly to beautiful. It’s on a different continuum than the usual homely-plain-cute-pretty vein that is our comfort zone. Boxing is voluntary ritualized crisis, and humans are at their best and worst in crises. The crocodile zone of business around the ring teems with the vile, the vulgar, and the valuable. It’s human. It’s gorgeous. It’s writer heaven.

Q: What are you up to these days?

A: I still report on and write about boxing. I’m also working on another novel. This one is set in the world of small-town, small-time boxing. It’s called Cut Man. The cut man is the guy in a boxer’s corner during a fight whose job is to stop any bleeding that may occur. The research has largely been done in the natural course of my work as a boxing reporter. For additional background material I’ve also researched and written magazine and newspaper essays and features on lots of other topics, from crime to art to gender differences, with side trips into robotics, ornithology, taxidermy, and such.

Q: What writers have influenced you the most?

A: Everybody I’ve ever read, but certainly Günter Grass, Gabriel García Márquez, and Joyce Cary, who were all lightning bolts. They knocked down walls I didn’t even know existed. The Greek tragedies are the clearest examples of the basic human stories, and, along with Moby Dick, they are pretty glorious demonstrations of the inextricable twining of comedy and tragedy. Henry David Thoreau and the other American Transcendentalists taught me to see the macrocosm in the microcosm, the world in a grain of sand.

Praise

Praise

“A Fellini movie in ink. . . . Geek Love throws a punch.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Wonderfully descriptive. . . . Dunn [has a] tremendous imagination.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Like most great novels, this one keeps the reader marveling at the daring of the author.” –Philadelphia Inquirer

“Unrelentingly bizarre . . . perverse but riveting. . . . Will keep you turning the pages.” –Chicago Tribune
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST

“Wonderfully descriptive. . . . Dunn [has a] tremendous imagination.”–The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. We hope they will offer new ways of thinking and talking about a novel that Kirkus Reviews called an “audaciously conceived, sometimes shocking tale of love and hubris in a carnival family.”

About the Guide

Like many of the best American novels of the past fifty years, Geek Love tells the story of a family. But this image of family is misshapen and bizarre, a reflection cast back at us from the distorting surface of a circus mirror. In a reversal of the conventional wish to produce perfect children, Crystal Lil and Al Binewski set out to give birth to a family of freaks, taking everything from prescription and illicit drugs to insecticides and radioisotopes to engineer their children’s deformities. They want to ensure their children’s success in the carnival and, as Lil says, “What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?” [p. 7] Arturo is born with flippers instead of hands and feet; Elly and Iphy are Siamese twins; Chick, who is nearly abandoned because he appeared normal at birth, can move things with his mind; and Olympia, who narrates the story, is a bald albino hunchbacked dwarf. Having created such a cast of characters, Dunn explores the strange dynamics both within the family and between the “freaks” who perform in Binewski’s Fabulon and the “norms” who come to watch them. Indeed, in one of the novel’s stunning reversals, the audience and the performers cross the boundaries that appear to separate them as Arturo convinces normal people that the way to true happiness is to “liberate” themselves from the straitjacket of their ordinariness by “shedding” their limbs. In this, and in many other instances throughout this multilayered novel, Dunn challenges the notions we use to distinguish self and other, normal and bizarre, perfection and deformity, appearance and reality.

With surprises on nearly every page, Geek Love explores the American family from an oblique and curiously revealing angle. It uncovers truths a more conventional approach could never even fathom.

About the Author

Katherine Dunn is the author of Attic, Truck, Why Do Men Have Nipples?, and Guyana. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Discussion Guides

1. Geek Love is preceded by an epigraph from “The Tempest,” in which the magician Prospero says of the monster Caliban: “This thing of darkness I Acknowledge mine” [“The Tempest,” 5.1.275-6]. How is this quote relevant to the novel? In what sense is Geek Love about acknowledging one’s own darkness, freakishness, or otherness?

2. Reviewers, even in praising Geek Love, have described it as “bizarre” (Chicago Tribune), “shocking” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution), and “grisly” (The Philadelphia Inquirer). In what ways does the novel seek to shock readers? What preconceptions does it try to overturn? How does it manage to be both engaging and deeply disturbing?

3. Reading imaginative literature requires, as Samuel Coleridge said, a willing suspension of disbelief. How difficult is it to suspend disbelief and enter into the fictional world of Geek Love? What are the rewards of doing so?

4. The first chapter of Geek Love is titled “The Nuclear Family,” and the father Al is described as a “standard-issue Yankee, set on self-determination and independence” [p. 7]. In what ways are the Binewskis like a typical American family, with its ambitions and rivalries and emotional power struggles? What is Dunn suggesting by pointing out these similarities?

5. Geek Love was written in the early eighties. How does it reflect and satirize American culture at that time?

6. When Chick is born, the family is ashamed and wants to get rid of him because he appears to be normal; Olympia speaks of escaping childhood knowledge into the innocence of adulthood; and eventually people who come to Arty’s shows pay to have their limbs amputated so they can feel whole again. What is Dunn suggesting through these reversals of values? What does she accomplish by subverting our “normal” ways of perceiving these things?

7. When Oly asks Arty if the ghost stories he reads scare him, he replies, “These are written by norms to scare norms. And do you know what the monsters and demons and rancid spirits are? Us, that’s what. You and me. We are the things that come to the norms in nightmares. . . . These books teach me a lot. They don’t scare me because they’re about me” [p. 46]. In what sense is Arty right in thinking that he and his siblings are the stuff of normal people’s nightmares? What is frightening about them? Is Dunn’s book disconcerting because in some important way it’s more a reflection of ourselves than we care to admit?

8. Katherine Dunn employs many unusual words in Geek Love: skootching, skuttered, rooched, snorking, frowzled, etc. What do such words add to the flavor of the novel? In what ways is such language appropriate to the story Dunn is telling?

9. In his journal, Norval Sanderson writes, “General opinion about Arty varies, from those who see him as a profound humanitarian to those who view him as a ruthless reptile” [p. 273]. Which of these views is more accurate? Is Arty a healer or a huckster?

10. How do the twins, Iphy and Elly, Arty, Chick, and Oly relate to each other? What roles do they play? How does Arty gain control over them?

11. Why does Dunn use the story of Hopalong McGurk, Miranda, and Mary Lick, which occurs in the fictional present, to frame the main narrative of the rise and fall of the Binewski family? What does each story line contribute to the other? In what ways is Mark Lick like Arty?

12. Olympia says that Miss Lick’s purpose in arranging disfiguring operations is to “liberate women who are liable to be exploited by male hungers. These exploitable women are, in Miss Lick’s view, the pretty ones.” After they lose their beauty they can “use their talents and intelligence to become powerful” [p. 162]. Is this a valid critique of the constraints of attractiveness for women? What does the novel as a whole say about the relation between appearance and power?

13. In one of Arturo’s statements to Norval Sanderson, he says, “I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique” [p. 223]. Is he right? Do most people fear being ordinary?

14. Why does Oly kill Mary Lick and then herself at the end of the novel? What are her hopes for her daughter?

15. The reviewer for Kirkus wrote that the novel is about “love and hubris in a carnival family.” How does love motivate the main characters in the novel? Who is guilty of hubris? What are the consequences of this overreaching ambition?

Suggested Readings

Rachel Adams, Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination; Jan Bondeson, The Two-Headed Boy and Other Medical Marvels; Ricky Jay, Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women; Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis and “A Hunger Artist”; Daniel P. Mannix, Freaks: We Who Are Not as Others and Memoirs of a Sword Swallower; William Shakespeare, “The Tempest;” Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Darin Strauss, Chang and Eng: A Novel.

  • Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
  • June 11, 2002
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9780375713347

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