Book review: Geek Love

Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love puts you inside a family of carnival freaks

gl_bookcover3_largeGeek Love is not a cute story about nerds falling in love. Instead it’s about a family of messed up carnival freaks and their screwed up family dynamic.

The story is told from the perspective of one of the daughters, Olympia Binewski, who is an albino dwarf. The narrative jumps between her growing up with the family and her as a reclusive adult. As an adult the relationships with her family have broken down and she spends her days keeping tabs on her daughter, who has no idea Olympia is her mother.

The family’s morals are incredibly skewed and the kids’ relationship with each other veers from extremely volatile sibling rivalry to unhealthy codependency.

To create their family, Olympia’s parents experimented with drugs to try to make their children deformed. One of the trailers in their carnie caravan houses vats containing the preserved bodies of children who died as a result of their deformities.

A particularly jarring scene has the patriarch of the family, Al, telling Olympia and her siblings about how he created them. Al presents it as though it is a heartwarming story meant to make the children feel special and loved.

The family’s values are bizarre and wrong, but in their view, they are completely justifiable.

Although the characters are far from likable, Geek Love does humanize them in a way. At its core the book is about being markedly different, and how that affects the way people look at the world and vice versa.

The story immediately brings to mind perhaps the most famous real terrible carnie, Grady Stiles. Stiles had ectrodactyly and was thus billed as “Lobster Boy” in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Despite the deformity of his limbs, he was incredibly strong and violent. He shot his eldest daughter’s fiancé on the eve of their wedding, and was eventually killed by a sideshow performer who was paid to do it by his wife and stepson.

The world that the Binewskis have created for themselves is high stakes all the time. It always feels as though death is right around the corner, as the characters enforce their twisted take on justice.

Geek Love is a tough read because of the controversial subject matter, but it’s also a tough read to put down. It’s a fascinating window into a less tolerant time and will make you feel really, really good about your own relationship with your family.