Home > 1980, 20th Century, American Literature, Book Club, Dunn Katherine, Gallmeister, Literary UFO, Novel > Geek Love by Katherine Dunn – The Freak is Chic

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn – The Freak is Chic

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989) French title: Amour monstre. Masterfully translated by Jacques Mailhos.

If you’ve never heard of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, forget about nerd techies and Star Wars aficionados. The geek here means more freak as in Freak Show. I started to read it in English but had to switch to French because I couldn’t picture what I was reading and didn’t know whether it came from my English or something else.

Something else it was.

Al and Lily Binewski inherited of the flailing Fabulon carnival show, had trouble keeping freaks on payroll to attract an audience and decided to breed their own freak show. Al would tinker with Lily’s pregnancies so that Lily would give birth to their own troop of freaks.

I’m sorry for the long quote that will follow but I don’t know a better way to introduce you to the Binewski family and give you a taste of Dunn’s brand of crazy prose.

First, this is how Al and Lilly took matter into their own hands and started their family:

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.

And then the outcome was *drum roll*

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 Furtunato. For one reason and another we always called him Chick.

The narrator is Olympia, the hunchbacked dwarf. We see her in present time (1980s) with Miranda, her daughter. Only Miranda thinks she’s orphaned and Olympia takes care of her financially and observes her from afar and is about to step into her life. (I won’t tell more to avoid spoilers). Olympia also tells us her family story, something so extraordinary that I struggle to sum it up.

Let’s say that the Binewski siblings were raised by nomadic parents who operated the Fabulon Carnival, founded by Al’s father and developed by Al himself and then Arturo. The siblings are raised in the idea the freakiest you are, the more love-worthy you are. They compete for their parents’ love through their earnings in the carnival. Whose show brings in the most money?

After a while, Arturo takes over the management, expands the carnival and soon reigns over a big crowd. In a sense, he promotes the concept of Freak Pride and call the other humans the norms (for normal people) He becomes a sort of guru, inside and outside his family. His siblings would do anything for his affection.

Geek Love is a crazy book that won’t let you indifferent. I wondered how the author’s brain came out with such a story. There are a lot of weird side characters in Geek Love and Dunn managed to design a coherent world. The details she gives about the carnival help build up her world, just like all the details about Hogwarts reveal the school of Witcraft and Wizardry in our minds and give it substance. It comes to life under our eyes.

It’s an alternative world where beauty, power, adoration and wealth are in the hands of the deformed. Obviously, it goes against the dictatorship of beauty. But if you go behind the curtain of strangeness, it’s a story of rivalry between the siblings and out-of-norm love. It describes the functioning of a close-knit clan who lives in their own world, with their own rules and bring the spectators in for the time of the show. Human nature remains and the quest for love, approval and a sense of self-worth are the same for the Binewskis as for anyone else.

Dunn questions a lot of human behaviors in her Geek Love. It challenges our reaction to physical differences. It points out our fascination for abnormalities. The Fabulon carnival wouldn’t exist without its constant influx of awestruck spectators, as if the public was at the same time repulsed, riveted and relieved that these deformities are not theirs.

Al and Lily’s actions are also questionable. Are parents allowed to interfere in a pregnancy to have the baby they want? Is it right by their children? The question is even more pressing nowadays since the medical techniques have developed tremendously since Geek Love was published.

Geek Love was our Book Club read for April and we had a lot to share about it. It’s disturbing to the point of nightmares. We agreed that we wouldn’t want to see it on a big screen as some images are better tamed in one’s mind when they come from words than from film. I know blocked things and scenes I didn’t want to imagine fully. I didn’t like the Binewkis very much but some of us found them touching in their own weird ways.

I’m eager to talk about this book with other readers. If you’ve read it, please leave a comment and don’t hesitate to share your thoughts. Spoilers are allowed if readers are warned. I’m looking forward to discussing aspects of the book I couldn’t put into this billet. Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.

PS: The French title of the book, Amour monstre is perfect. Monstre as a noun covers the word Geek and monstre as an adjective means huge and this fits the story. Amour monstre means both Geek Love and Huge Love and this applies to the love Olympia feels for Arturo and Miranda.

  1. May 8, 2019 at 3:14 pm

    This novel was something of a sensation when it appeared in the U.S. It’s also one of the few books I put right out on the stoop after reading. I do wonder how I’d react to the book today, at least two decades after reading it, but I confess that don’t have a lot of motivation to find out. I recall thinking that its nightmarish aspects, its notion of a family where freakiness was paramount, made for kind of a one note samba which came off as titillating, deliberately provocative. For a family of freaks, I found this one a lot less engaging than the one Charles Addams created.

    I did not know that “monstres” had the sense of “geek” in French. Have you read Emil Ferris’ fascinating graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters (Moi, ce que j’aime, c’est les monstres)?

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    • May 8, 2019 at 10:11 pm

      I’m not surprised that it was a sensation when it was published. I see you had a strong reaction to it too and that you remember it years later.
      I finished it because it was a Book Club read but I have to confess I had a hard time finishing it. I wanted to have answers to some questions, so I kept reading too but I never felt engaged in the story or truly interested in the characters.

      While I can admire the author’s work and say it’s a good book, I didn’t love it.

      Geek is not monstre in the sense of Monstre du Loch Ness or Yeti but more like “monstre de foire”. (https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monstre_humain)
      I haven’t read this graphic novel, I’ll check it out, thanks.

      Like

  2. Jonathan
    May 8, 2019 at 3:16 pm

    I read this back in the early nineties so can’t remember too much about it. But I remember really liking it; it’s just my kind of book. I had thought it was a real cult book but there were quite a few obituaries when Dunn died a few years ago.

    Like

    • May 8, 2019 at 10:13 pm

      I see it didn’t leave such a strong impression on you.

      I don’t remember seeing any review of it among the bloggers I follow.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. May 11, 2019 at 11:34 am

    I’ve never read this although I’ve heard of it – it does sound a tough read. I’m not sure I really want to read it, but it does sound a good choice for a book group.

    Like

    • May 12, 2019 at 5:50 pm

      It’s weird and horrifying at the same time. It’s hard to define and I can’t say I enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. May 16, 2019 at 1:57 pm

    I’m a bit worried about Jonathon “just my kind of book”, but then I think about The Naked Lunch for instance so perhaps I should worry about myself. Monstres make me uncomfortable but it is a way of talking about voluntary genetic mutation which I think will prove unstoppable.

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    • May 18, 2019 at 9:47 am

      *chuckles*
      I don’t think I understood The Naked Lunch when I read it. (There is a billet about it)

      I do think that Geek Love is a valuable book. It’s disturbing but it raises good questions about how far we can go with our body, how someone’s physical appearance always influence the the perception we have of them. It questions the beauty norms, society’s treatment of differences, whatever they are.
      But this family is dysfunctional and CRAZY.

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