Geek Love (1989)

Katherine Dunn

Rating: 5/10

Sometimes I look to see what other people recommend in books, and I found an odd set of books on NPR’s Three Books series.  Only Geek Love caught my attention (the rest were beyond my tolerance if their synopsizes were to be taken at face value).  Even tt was outside my normal reading “comfort zone,” but that was part of the appeal.  Although the tone was crass and held nothing back, the writing was decently executed overall.  I had worries about the plot however, as about one-quarter into the book I wasn’t sure where the main storyline was going.  I struggled through that part (and my revulsion at various scenes) and made it to the end.  Overall I’m still not sure I enjoyed it, but there were themes in the book that made me feel that it wasn’t a total waste of time.

Brief synopsis (no spoilers):

The book is really the memoirs of an albino hunchback dwarf (Olympia) who grew up in a carnival amidst her family (the Binewskis) of purposefully-bred freaks.  By purposefully, I mean her mom (at the husband’s request) took various drugs and other chemicals to breed her children with abnormalities.  In addition to Olympia, the mother birthed a conjoined set of sisters (Electra and Iphigenia), a boy with flippers instead of legs and arms (Arturo), a seemingly normal boy with a hidden gift (Fortunato), and several other children that didn’t make it.  Arturo the Aqua Boy goes on to found a perverse cult and Olympia gives birth to an “almost-norm.”  The book is really a memoir for Olympia’s daughter (Miranda) who doesn’t know who her mother is or about her family lineage (though she does have a small tail as her Binewski trademark/legacy).

Detailed synopsis (spoilers and some disturbing ones at that):

The story starts after the closing of the Binewski traveling carnival when Olympia is living (incognito) in a building with her daughter.  Miranda is approached by a woman who discovers her tail via a dance show at a local seedy joint specializing in oddities of nature.  The woman (Miss Lick) tells Miranda that she can remove her tail and that she’s helped out many women “liberate” themselves from such problems.  Olympia is suspicious (and angry as she views her family’s freaky parts as something to be treasured) and begins looking into Miss Lick.

A long flashback ensues and we discover all sorts of horrible things about the carnival.  Fortunato (or Chick as he comes to be known) has incredible powers of the mind (telekinesis, emotion control, and even pyrokinesis).  Arturo slowly takes over the family business and starts a religious cult where “norms” willingly lop off parts of their bodies to be more like him (the more they lop off, the more “elevated” they are in the church hierarchy).  A “norm” doctor (Miss Peabody) has joined the carnival to help with the operations and is aided by Chick who regulates their pain.  She eventually attempts to create a schism in the church and is removed leaving Chick as Arturo’s surgeon.

With Chick’s help, Olympia hijacks Arturo’s (yes, her brother) sperm and gets pregnant with Miranda but doesn’t let him know he’s the father.  She thinks it will bring them all closer at some point.

The conjoined twins are impregnated (at Arturo’s decree) by the man who once tried to kill the whole family but who was horribly disfigured when he tried to commit suicide but failed (with a shotgun to his face).  They give birth to a hyper-gluttonous baby who is killed by one of the twins who had been reawakened by Chick after Arturo gave the order (to Chick) to lobotomize her when he found out they had been prostituting themselves.  The twin who killed the baby is then killed in turn by the other twin.  This sets Chick off the deep end who then goes out and incinerates Arturo, his congregation, and the rest of the family except for Olympia and her mother.

Back to the present, Olympia stalks and befriends Miss Lick who is disfiguring (“liberating”) pretty women who then channel their energies into their chosen profession and become successful (physicists, doctors, etc.).  Olympia finally murders the woman before she can get her hands on Miranda, but is killed in the process.  She had left letters and keys to Miranda who must now navigate her family’s history annals alone.

As I said, not my normal fare (nor for the faint of heart).

So why did I bother to continue reading through one horrible revelation after another?  A couple of themes caught my attention.


Although the attraction of Arturo’s cult seems too outlandish to be plausible, I’ll admit I’ve never been in the position that his initiates have been in (desperation, lack of critical-thinking skills, emotionally empty, etc.).  Besides, his church in all had some 5000 adherents at its peak which is some miniscule percentage of the US population at this time.  But moving beyond all this, his cult is portrayed as an interesting historic parallel to the Catholic Church history.  I don’t mean the self-mutilation bit (that’s for Dan Brown novels, right?), but rather the general historical trends.  1) A group of desperate people are looking for something greater than themselves to provide succor and salvation (a la the Middle Ages); 2) the Church consolidates its power over secular rulers (Arturo supplants his father as head of the carnival); 3) a rival sect in the Church disagrees with its dogma (Dr. Peabody and Catharism); 4) the heretical sects are removed by force (Arturo’s henchmen and the Albigensian Crusade).

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this (trying to make use of my generally useless medieval studies), but I think Arturo’s cult can be seen as portraying a constant set of needs of the human condition.  A need to belong to an “in” group, a need for acceptance, a need for someone to acknowledge our pain.  But I think it also serves as a warning against charlatans and those who can exploit those needs for their own selfish gains (the initiates do sign over all their money to Arturo and then they have to fend for themselves as they trail along after the carnival, resorting to stealing food to survive).

Or maybe it’s just a crazy story about some flipper-boy with a Napoleonic complex.

The Super Being:

What happens when Superman is raised by a freak-show carnival?  You get Fortuanto.  Born a pacifist who can hurl bodies or manipulate molecules with equal impunity, Chick can even manipulate peoples’ emotions.  But he is terrified of hurting people (or animals) and seeks only to comfort other living beings once he is old enough to reason (4-5 years old).  Slowly, however, he is molded under Arturo’s flipper and gets to the point where he does the cult’s amputations and even lobotomizes his sister on the Aqua Boy’s orders.  When he finally snaps on Arturo (for the death of his sister and nephew), he incinerates nearly everyone in his path in his quest for vengeance before self-immolating (presumably so he won’t have to live with the guilt).

So why does he put up with Arturo?  For love and acceptance from his older brother.  But even Chick has his limits of perceived betrayal, and woe to the world when this alpha-psychic blows a gasket.  The character of Chick alone can thrust this novel into the science fiction genre, though I doubt many others would agree.

Memorable Quotes:

“The truth is always an insult or a joke.  Lies are generally tastier.  We love them.  The nature of lies is to please.  Truth has no concern for anyone’s comfort.” -Arturo Binewski

“Consider the whole thing as occupational therapy.  Power as cottage industry for the mad.  The shepherd is slave to the sheep.  A gardener is in thrall to his carrots.  Only a lunatic would want to be president.  These lunatics are created deliberately by those who wish to be presided over.  You’ve seen it a thousand times.  We create a leader by locating one in the crowd who is standing up.  This may well be because there are no chairs or because his knees are fused by arthritis.  It doesn’t matter.  We designate this victim as a ‘stand-up guy’ by the simple expedient of sitting down around him” -Arturo Binewski

“The more people we exclude, the more people will want to join.  That’s what exclusive means.” -Arturo Binewski