Geek Love: Katherine Dunn

I’ve been going through this weird almost panic lately, some kind of reader’s angst. I’m usually so focussed on Mt. Bookstoberead that I ignore the many shelves that house books I’ve already read and loved. (Because I don’t keep books I wouldn’t read again. There is just no point in that.) So lately, while I’m reading some new treat, my eyes slip away to caress the spines of all the other books, fondly remembering sweet details about each one. And the one book that is getting more fond glances than all the others is Geek Love.

If you haven’t read it already, stop reading this right now and go read it. I’ll wait. Seriously. Go. I promise, you will add it to your list of best books ever. I am not exaggerating.

If you have read it already, maybe think about reading it again? When I picked it up, I thought I still remembered all the details and that this twisty, bumpy road could not engage me like it had all those years ago when I read and re-read it compulsively. Of course, I remembered the main story, the travelling carnival owned and operated by the Binewski family. But I had forgotten so many of the exquisite details and what an incredible writer Katherine Dunn is. Just look at this description of narrator Olympia’s mother Crystal Lil (as spoken by her dad): “And your mama…standing there like three scoops of vanilla…” Or this in reference to a certain creepy carnival follower: “Where she had been wetly repellent she was now obnoxious.”

Dunn breaks the story up into albino, hunchback dwarf Olympia’s memories of growing up in the carnival, and her “Notes for Now”, which document her stalking her adult daughter Miranda and taking care of Crystal Lil, now nearly completely blind and deaf. But she doesn’t do that alternating chapters thing that I find somewhat offputting. Instead, she lets the “Notes for Now” have some space whenever they need to be there. Because although they are documenting Olympia’s present, they are also used to advance the story of her childhood.

And holy smokes, her childhood! It’s no accident that Olympia is an albino, hunchback dwarf. Or that her older brother Arturo the Aqua Boy was born with flippers instead of proper arms and legs with actual hands and feet. Or that her older sisters, Electra and Iphigenia, are conjoined twins. Or that her younger brother Fortunato (aka Chick) is some kind of telekinetic superhero. When the carnival was going through tough times, father Al decided to “breed his own freak show” and with the enthusiastic participation of his wife Lil (“As she often said, ‘What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?’”), started dosing his wife with “illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes.”

A story that starts off like this could so easily go in so many less-awesome directions, cautionary tale or staring at the freaks style. But Dunn creates such real and sympathetic characters that ten pages in, you are one hundred percent involved in a very lovingly portrayed tale of a family and its demise. A family that goes big with everything including love and revenge. But it’s the smaller moments that really win your heart. Like when Chick, trying desperately to win over a spiteful and jealous Arturo, uses his power to superclean Arturo’s tank, and all he earns is a snarky “show-off” for his efforts:

I sat looking at Chick. I knew what he felt. The huge and buoyant air sack of love that filled his body had just exploded and the collapse was devastating. Poor little stupe. … I got up and walked over to the Chick. His eyes swiveled at me in fear. He thought I was going to pinch him or say something nasty. That proved he couldn’t read minds. I put my arms around him. I rubbed my cheek against his curly ear. He slung an arm around my neck. I whispered, “It’s a great way to clean.”

So sweet! Such a moment and you know just how both of them feel. Dunn makes this seemingly unrelatable family of circus freaks human and real in unexpected ways. I basically just want to pull quotes from the book for you because there are so many perfect lines and incredible moments. Plus a story that is more than over the top. It progresses so naturally that each step forward makes perfect sense, but when you step back and look at the whole story, you can’t believe that Dunn can get Olympia from that carnival to that house in Portland in the same book. So stop reading me and go read her already.


  1. Sigh. Will the list of must-read-books ever get shorter? Seriously. And my habit of stalking blogs about books only makes it worse. May the force be with us, I guess.

    Btw, what do you usually do with the books that you know you’ll never read again? Donate them to Salvation Army? Sell them at the flea market?

    1. As long as people keep writing incredible books, our must-read books list will only grow longer. I second your sigh.

      I usually freecycle books I know I’ll never read again, although sometimes I take them to a used bookstore for credit. How about you? Any great used book tips?

      1. Dear Lord. I had to include this title in the list of ‘The Books that are Disturbing According to Julia’, along with some of Palahniuk’s and Clive Barker’s works. Oh, and let’s not forget Lolita. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed reading it. Couldn’t stop until the last page, actually. So I have you to thank for making a post about this book.

        Hmm…right now I am trying to sell some of my books in a forum. And man, do people really drive a hard bargain. I mean, my books are in good condition, I even cover them with high quality plastic cover! Sure some of the pages are yellow, but it’s normal for old books. At least all my books are clean. But they keep on asking me to lower and lower the price. Okay, I will stop the rants now.

        Btw, they nominated Murakami for the Nobel Prize for Literature. I am a bit torn about this. On one hand, it made me happy that a non-Westerner is given a recognition, but on the other hand, I don’t think his works are that good.

      2. Oh no! I didn’t mean to get you reading a book that goes on the disturbing list! Geek Love is far from Palahniuk and Barker in my mind, so I figured we were safe. At least you enjoyed reading it! Hopefully, the disturbing elements get eased a little by the more beautiful parts of the book. And I have to agree, there are disturbing elements. I just never focus so much on them when I read this book.

        I saw that about Murakami. I’m not really torn about it, though. Like you, I don’t think he deserves it and I think one of the reasons he’s being talked about for the Prize (again!) is the fact that he is a well-known, non-Western writer. His work is certainly not interesting enough stylistically to merit this award, and I don’t think it really ever has been, as much as I like a lot of his earlier work. He’s done some interesting stuff, but for me, the Nobel Prize is about recognizing really innovative work, things like Soul Mountain (which blew my mind!) by Gao Xingjian, who won in 2000. I want to see authors who are really shaking things up somehow, and Murakami is not doing that.

        Is the forum where you’re selling your books like GoodReads or something? I’ve never done that. But I can totally imagine that people are just pushing for you to lower the prices. Rant away! That is so frustrating. Especially when you have taken such good care of your books and know that they are worth the price you’re asking. But people never want to pay what something is worth. Sigh.

  2. This bittersweet response is exactly what I got from reading Code Name Verity. But the experience also is something I have to nerve myself up for – the heartache is as real as the feeling of catharsis and hope at the end.

    1. You’ll have to seriously work yourself up for this one then, given that there is not much hope at the end. A lot of catharsis though so maybe it all balances out? Either way, Geek Love is totally worth it. You’ll be pretty thoughtful once you turn that last page.

      And I haven’t read Code Name Verity, but I’ll check it out. A book you have to steel yourself to read sounds like it’s worth reading.

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