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.