Review: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

How does one explain this novel? John Irving meets Tim Burton?

This is probably at least the the third time I’ve read it although I know I’ve read it more. It’s in my top five favorite books ever. People ask what it’s about when I read it. All of the events of the books swarm into view but then I eventually shrug and say, “Circus freaks.” But it’s much more than that. So much more.

Al and “Crystal” Lily Binewski (a former geek–original term meaning someone who bites the heads off of chickens) are the leaders of a failing carnival after the death of Al’s father. After Al sees the International Rose Test Garden in Portland, Oregon (“Where I was conceived” says Oly) he and Lil decide to breed their own freak show using whatever chemical means necessary. There are some failed attempts, which they keep in their own trailer called The Chute (with one offspring lovely called The Tray) but the living ones are Arturo “Arty” the Aqua Boy, born with flippers instead of arms and legs; Elly and Iphy the Siamese Twins, Olympia the albino humpback dwarf narrator who is seen as the boring one, and Fortunato or “Chick” — a normal looking little boy whose Charles Atlas strength telekinesis makes Carrie White seem like a wimpy nebbish Woody Allen.

Al and Lily may have created them but Arty rules over them. Eventually he starts his own cult full of people who want to be just like him, physically. The author, Katherine Dunn, says part of her inspiration came from the real Rose Garden in Oregon and from Jim Jones.

All of this is written along with a “Now” section with just Oly and Lily and Oly’s nineteen-year-old daughter Miranda (who believes she’s an orphan) some seventeen years or so after the main story. Miranda was born with a tail. A tail that Miranda is thinking of having surgically removed thanks to one Mary Lick, a TV dinner heiress who takes away women’s sexual identity surgically¬†in order for the woman to blossom educationally and in their own careers without the distraction of men. Oly knows there’s no time to waste if she wants to save Miranda’s identity, the last genetic gasp of a great family.

Geek Love is an incredible book. It’s not for everyone though. I had my father read it years ago and he thought it was…rather weird. Earlier I compared this book to John Irving and the opening chapter opens very much like The Hotel New Hampshire, with the parents explaining how they met. Throw in a great heaping of Tim Burton and David Lynch, a dash of David Cronenberg and a sprinkle of Stephen King and you have Geek Love.

Geek Love was written by Katherine Dunn and published in 1989.

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