When the back of a book can proudly declare that it is ‘the cult classic’ loved by Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Jeff Buckley and Audrey Niffenegger (to name just a few), you know it’s probably going to be a pretty unique read. Having never read anything previously by Katherine Dunn, I was completely unsure what kind of a writer she would turn out to be, especially when such high praise has already been given. Thankfully, having now read the book I can wholeheartedly agree that this book deserves every bit of praise it has been gifted.
I think it is important to understand that in this instance, the word ‘geek’ is actually taken from the definition of a carnival performer whose acts often involves biting the head off live chickens. Using this piece of knowledge, I think in many ways this can capture the essence of the book.
The book itself, Geek Love, is narrated by Olympia, a bald, hunchback albino dwarf. Yes, you did read that right. Growing up in a community where the individuals who are the most unusual and different are regarded most highlt, you would think that Olympia would be cherished. Yet, with one brother, The Aqua Boy, who is a ‘limbless megalomaniac’, two conjoined sisters with musical talents, and a younger brother with telekinetic powers, Olympia falls somewhat in the background for her apparent normality, with her siblings drawing in the most crowds. Yet, it was not for lack of trying on the part of her parents, who ensured their mother Lil gorged on drugs, pesticides, and everything else experimental to ensure their children would sell tickets for the show. As you can probably tell, this book is brilliantly disturbing, with our narrator describing both past and present in a thrilling tale of family, love, grotesquery, cruelty and everything else in between.
The opening of the book immediately grabs a reader’s attention as the family reminisce about their mother’s glory days, back when she was the greatest geek with the best knack for beheading live chickens with her mouth. As gross as it is, it certainly invites the reader into this crazy world, introducing us in an accessibly way into the dynamics of the family. The juxtaposition between the brutal physicality of the act and the luminescent glow in which Lil’s fame is bathed in create a brilliantly jarring contrast. What I liked about the opening of this book was that it was speech and character heavy, allowing us to see how easily the author is able to produce conversation realistically.
It would be impossible to review this book without discussing the parents themselves, and the ways in which they treat and raise their children. Referencing her conception and birth, Olympia fondly informs us that ‘My mother had been liberally dosed with cocaine, amphetamines, and arsenic during her ovulation and throughout her pregnancy with me’ (p. 11). Yet, despite their attempts, it was with ‘disappointment when I emerged with such commonplace deformities’ (p. 11). This perfectly encapsulates the mentality of this family, in sharp contrast to the craved for health and normality of normal babies. In fact, they even go so far as to abandon their youngest son when they wrongly believe that he has no such uniqueness, preferring to give him away than raise a child who is so apparently normal; twisted by anyone’s standards!
Yet, despite the deformities forced upon them by their parents, the children seem to adore them, craving the stories of their creations like fairytales. I think this was one of my favourite aspects of the whole novel, and I loved examining the mentality of someone who has been raised to think and behave a certain way in such dramatic contrast to popular opinion. It certainly gave me a lot to think about with regards to the nature versus nurture debate. Yet, even with the knowledge of their immoral crimes, the author manages to instill this sense of sympathy for certain characters. For example, the scenes where Lil is about to give up her apparently normal baby are very emotional, with the mother actually being reluctant to go through with it. A constant tension exists between the horrors of the inflicted deformities, yet this sort of twisted compassion for the parents in their own right. Likewise, as we follow the family and everything which befalls them, this sense of pity increases, resulting in a very confusing state of emotions which prove the talent of the writer.
I applaud Katherine Dunn for the sheer bravery she had in tackling this novel and actually writing it. Deformity is something which is not necessarily spoken about in the media even today, and I think that it is something people can shy away from out of nervousness and uncertainty. There is no such thing in existence here, with Dunn taking a grandly exaggerated and often horrific look at deformities and disabilities. One character tells of us their ‘curse’, that they are ‘a freak but not much of a freak . . .fucked up without being special’ (p. 148). I loved the way in which Dunn created such vivid characters with such differing outlooks on life. Here, rather than shy away from deformity, they crave it, seeing it as the thing which makes them special. Just like many people, their physical appearance shapes the way they see the world, but in a much stranger way as compared to traditional methods. The questions of disability and deformity and the topics surrounding it are always going to be extremely difficult topics for some people, but in this book Dunn does not hold back and the novel works all the more for its rawness.
As well as the book taking a broad look at physical deformities and what some may view as the grotesque, it also looks massively at the grotesqueness of immorality. Something which springs to mind for me still after having finished this book is the collection of jars which hold floating embryos which the family keep. The jars contain the deceased or ‘failed’ children that did not make it to full term and life. The image conjured by such things is disturbing enough in itself, but equally so is the fact that no remorse is shed for the actions inflicted upon these babies, with this instead being saved for the wasted opportunities that the jars hold. This is just one instance of the balance between the physical images and morality which are held in unison.
To carry on from this disturbing train of thought, the book in its entirety is plagued by dark, troubled undertones which stalk the characters. Whilst some of the deeds are very much explicit, some are only implied, leaving a level of uncertainty which only heightens the strange atmosphere of the book. Even with these tones and the uniqueness of the family, there are many identifiable moments which I think many families will experience themselves. One of the most noticeable of these is sibling rivalry, as well as the manipulation which can be forced upon younger, more naive children. The character of Chick, the youngest sibling, was extremely interesting in the ways he is often taken advantage of and the consequences of this upon his own character. A rather ironic side note is also the fact that growing up in such a place as this, where animals have their heads bitten off daily, Chick is actually a vegetarian. Complex indeed! He is the kind of person I would love to study and examine in greater length.
A big part of this book takes a look at what I would term ‘cult’ mentality. This theme makes for a fascinating insight into the lengths people can go for the things they have come to believe and the people they have come to believe in. It shows us not only why people might feel themselves draw to various extremes, but also how people can capitalise on this, something which is prevalent in society still.
Katherine Dunn is an extremely skilled author. Not only is her writing well formed and clever, but she also has fantastic characterisation and a powerful control over her readers. I loved the way in which her words were able to manipulate me, reveling in the ways I was directed to think of the characters. I honestly think this would be an amazing book to study, with every new read bringing different details to light.
After reading this book, I would not be at all surprised if I learnt that the writers of American Horror Story were fans of, and had taken inspiration from, this book. So many of the themes and even the plot are almost identical, and I would urge any fans of the TV show to give this a try. All in all, a disgustingly gripping book, hanging in the balance between amusement and the grotesque.