Book Review: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

This–THIS–is the book I’ve been searching for. But it ultimately has no unforeseen twist or ultimate moral point (though the twists and points it does take/make are very interesting) and could have been 100 pages shorter. This is why I’m rating it 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Not that those 100 unnecessary pages weren’t interesting. They’re just…looking-at-a-bearded-lady interesting. You’re just staring. Gaping with your mouth open. At the end of it, you don’t think your dollar to get in the peep show really added that much to your life, but, hey, you got your money’s worth. But I’ll stop trying to draw analogies here.

Weird, disturbed, honest. Don’t let the title mislead you, this isn’t a book about nerd-geeks. It’s about bite-the-heads-off-of-chickens-geeks. Which apparently was/is a thing.

That’s why I am not fond of the orange cover edition. It’s misleading. It looks techy.

This one is better:

But on to the review. This book had the most vegetarian characters I’d ever seen in a book. And were almost more believable than other vegetarian characters I know.

The character Chick in this book is the most interesting vegetarian character I’ve ever read. But toward the end, those vegetarian characters didn’t make sense. Because there were SO MANY of them. I counted at least three. Maybe four if you count context. The Cat Man, Horst; Chick; the legless electrician guy Arty hires; and Doc P, because she makes all those vegetarian meals for the Arturians.

Does the vegetarianism mean something? That vegetarians are freaks? That if you are are in a carnival that you see a lot of grotesque stuff and so you don’t want to eat it either? That the freaks are pieces of meat being gawked at so they don’t want to eat themselves? WHAT.

One other thing against it, that feeds back into how it could have been 100 pages shorter, is that in one early scene a guy shoots at them. It’s so shoved in it feels like an afterthought and the issue isn’t brought up again until much later.

The ending is also wrapped up too quickly. You can see where the buildup is going. But then, when it gets there, we don’t spend too much time there. This book took me forever to finish. Though, every word was mesmerizing. And the flow of the past to the present was so well done I always knew what time period we were in.

Part of me wonders if this book is offensive to disabled people. Or empowering. I think that each character is treated with autonomy. They are each fleshed out.

Except for when their father lets Arty take over. That was strange. Sure, he was shaken up when Arty kept scheming against him and he thinks he’s losing his cunning, but he lets his Siamese twin daughters marry a total stranger/be raped. It didn’t fit with his character. Someone who is so suspicious of people finding out about Chick/protecting his family isn’t going to not at least say “sorry, there’s nothing I can do.” Right?

Though, all my qualms with the story are things I can forgive, because there are still ways to make excuses for the behavior…

THIS BOOK.

It is an examination of breeder culture. The main character, Oly, doesn’t call her parents mom and dad. She was bred for a purpose–a purpose which gives rise to incest. Even after the parents think their children are dead at one point, one of them starts trying to have sex immediately so that they can create new ones. The parents give away children that are too “normal,” because they would just be a burden on the family.

It is an examination of evangelical culture. Arty becomes a cult leader. He gets people to cut away themselves until there is nothing left. He is a carnival attraction just like preachers (arguably) can be. The lyric “Preach a little gospel, sell a couple bottles of doctor good” comes to mind.

It is an examination of creation. The main character, Oly, meets a woman when she is an adult whose MO is to “help” pretty girls by turning them ugly. Sometimes not of their free will. While this character was interesting, I found her insertion grinding because she was “helping” Oly’s pretty daughter, Miranda, by offering to remove her tail. Arguably, that wouldn’t make her daughter uglier to most people. Without a tail she’d certainly be more appealing to a broader audience. So Dunn twists it to say that it’s because her daughter, Miranda, is using the tail as a sexual part (which she is; she’s a stripper at a ‘freak show peep show’). It made me have to sigh out an “Ehhh. OK. Fine.” But to my point: the book examines creation–creating freaks at birth or freaks later on in life.

It is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. I’ve definitely not read anything like it. The only comparable ones are The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Automation by Anonymous, and The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. Dark. Funny. With a hint of magic.

Also, I’ve never read a book with so much bathroom humor in my life. Turds, farts, and penises.

Other reviews I agree with:

I was also disappointed in the way Chick’s inferno was described. Dunn doesn’t think twice about spending four or five pages describing, say, the horse Arty has lopped off at the knees. She’ll write an entire paragraph about Miss Lick cooking popcorn or Chick cleaning Arty’s tank. But the climax of the novel gets barely a page and leaves readers scratching their heads.

 

Any book that was written in the early ‘80’s and is still worth reading today, is almost by definition, a semi-classic; though cult-horror classic might be closer to the mark for Geek Love. That’s right: this is not your run-of-the-mill beach novel. I will not be placing this book on my list of Best Ten Novels of the 20th Century; but I’m sure there are others who will, and I have no basic argument with them. Geek Love is bizarre, but only on the surface. Fundamentally, this is a solid, serious, brilliant, and beautifully written story.

 

However, (and this is where I think Dunn lets the story get away from herself) Dunn throws into the mix a very involved plot line about a cult that forms around one of the freak children. Yes, this cult ends up playing a very key role in how matters devolve and characters self-destruct, but I thought it was almost a cheap ploy which took away from the beautifully structured family drama that was well-positioned to implode without the help of any external forces. That would have been the harder book to write and more satisfying book to read, in my opinion. The cult story line, however, is not without merit, but I felt like Dunn did a disservice to what could have been a fascinating tale in its own right by shoehorning it next to a fully formed family drama within a 350 page novel.

And what can I even say about the completely superfluous third story line involving one of the freaks’ children and a seemingly mentally ill, rich woman with a psychopathic obsession. None of the characters in this present day story line were given the time to stretch out of their 2D roles and add anything of substance to the book. I am guessing this story line exists to provide some sort of interesting structure to the novel, but this hopping-between-past-and-present structure is one that has been pretty chewed up and spit out by literary fiction writers since time immemorial.

Execution/Writing: Where Nabokov’s writing is like a piece by Liszt (effervescent and stunning) and Joyce’s writing is like a piece by Mahler (ponderous and complex), Dunn is more like punk rock. There’s a lack of finesse, but you come away feeling like that was the intention all along.

 

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