Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn

>> Friday, October 05, 2012

TITLE: Geek Love
AUTHOR: Katherine Dunn

PAGES: 355

SETTING: Mid and late 20th century USA
TYPE: Fiction

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.
The main character and narrator of Geek Love is Olympia Binewski, whose parents decided to make sure their children would be assets to their travelling carnival. To that purpose they experimented with all sorts of chemicals and radiations while Lily was pregnant. The results were the megalomaniac Arturo, the Aqua-boy; the singing Siamese twins, Ellie and Iffy; Olympia herself, a bald, albino, hunchback dwarf; and the disappointingly "norm" Chick, who only has telekinetic powers.

I read Geek Love for my book club. From the basic description, this isn't a book I would have picked up on my own, but being pushed right out of my comfort zone is exactly why I'm in a book club. Still, I feared (especially after reading the first few pages) that I would struggle to get through it. I didn't, really. It's basically a disfunctional family saga/soap opera, and pretty engrossing. Much as I flew through it, however, I didn't enjoy it.

There are quite a few thought-provoking things here and elements I liked (like the concept behind the cult, and having a character who's got flippers for arms and legs be, not a tragic object of pity, but a powerful figure who ruthlessly takes over control over everyone around him, and everyone in the story considering his physique one of his weapons).

Unfortunately, there were many more things that didn't work for me at all. Chief amongst them was that I found Dunn's emphasis on being constantly shocking a bit juvenile and manipulative. A lot of it didn't serve any purpose in the story, and was clearly put in only to arouse feelings of shock and disgust in the reader. I could picture Dunn cackling in the background "Oh, they're going to be so shocked at this!". That sort of thing just makes me cross.

I also didn't completely get Olympia, especially in the sections set in the present day (the 80s, I guess). I didn't understand some of her actions, and didn't find her to be a particularly interesting character. And that whole section in the present, with Miss Lick, felt like it added nothing to the story. I get that it was supposed to be a counterpoint to the main storyline, but it didn't quite work that way, and felt half-baked. And then there's the way Dunn seems to lose interest in her story at climactic moments, and although she will spend paragraph after paragraph on marginally interesting things, she'll dispense with the entire tragic conclusion in a couple of lines.

So, not a success with me, this one. It was a relief to finish it.



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