What have I been doing with my life?! Why did I wait so long to read this book?! I have been aware of the existence of Geek Love for quite some time. My mother owned it. I remember its place on the bookshelf, one shelf up from the bottom. I once casually picked it up as a teenager, read the back, and thought, “Oh, that seems interesting.” And what did I do after that? I put it down like a chump! And then I probably ran off to read a Seventeen magazine. I missed out, because now after having finally read Geek Love, it has been added to my list of all-time favorite novels.
This novel is a masterful work of literary horror. The story follows the Binewski family, a clan of carnival folk and self-described “freaks,” each born with their own unique physical characteristics that allow them to tour as a freak show, drawing in crowds of “norms” to gawk at them. The family is especially proud of their freakishness and disdainful of what they consider normality. The Binewski mother and father deliberately created their exceptional brood, the mother ingesting a host of drugs during pregnancy in order to cause birth deformities in her children.
But, what makes this novel a work of horror is the Binewski family’s dysfunctional dynamics and the ensuing events that this dysfunction triggers. Each family member prizes bodily uniqueness with a pathological obsessiveness. Sibling rivalry is taken to the extreme, and the dynamics between members of the family range from jealousy to codependence. The most disturbing aspect of this book are the Machiavellian schemes of the oldest brother, Arty, born with flippers rather than arms and legs, who gains psychopathic control over his family, and soon after, an entire cult of adoring followers.
In the center of this is the narrator Oly, a bald, albino, hunchbacked dwarf, whose attributes are deemed not freakish enough by her family and whose job within the carnival is assisting her more spectacular siblings.
There are a number of disturbing scenes within the novel, but they are hardly gratuitous and serve to highlight the pure insanity of this deeply dysfunctional family. And the author, Katherine Dunn, writes with an expertly effective style in which one can only marvel at her mastery of language. Passages such as, “The seeping acid in Dr. Phyllis’s tone wore at my bones, peeling my teeth,” pepper the text, and it is no wonder that this novel was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Not only will this novel appeal to horror fans, it will also appeal to any reader that appreciates good writing and an engrossing plot. This book is meant to be savored, to be appreciated for its language and construction. The horrors represented in the book may be within a carnival setting following people with extraordinary physiques, but they stand for more universal horrors: blind devotion, ambition, rivalry, and unhealthy family dynamics.
I may have waited too long to read this book, but I am so glad that I finally did.