A Different Breed

Geek Love: A Novel BY Katherine Dunn. Vintage. Paperback, 368 pages. $15.

The cover of Geek Love: A Novel

“A TRUE FREAK CANNOT BE MADE. A true freak must be born.” Or so says Olympia Binewski, the bald albino hunchback narrator of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (1989). She makes this declaration with a burst of filial pride, as part of a family bred purposefully to serve as sideshow freaks. Olympia’s parents are circus performers seeking a cost-effective solution to the financial throes of a moribund industry. Her mother, Crystal Lil, agrees to ingest heaps of toxic chemicals and drugs during a gaggle of pregnancies in order to deliberately induce deformities in her offspring. Many don’t make it (but are displayed nonetheless, as part of the “Mutant Mystery” exhibit); some—like Olympia herself—are odd but possess neither sufficiently theatrical disfigurements nor star quality. A blessed—or is that accursed?—few achieve a measure of success on the stage. Then there’s Arturo the Aqua Boy, the firstborn, who makes up for his four flipper-limbs with so much off-the-charts charisma that he spurs a cult of able-bodied people to cut off their appendages to imitate him. His megalomania eventually destroys the family’s livelihood, but it may not prove strong enough to destroy the family.

Geek Love is a carnivalesque reversal of “traditional” family values, executed with such ghoulish enthusiasm that comparisons to The Addams Family rush past in a blur: The Binewskis make Gomez, Morticia, and their brood look like the Cleavers. What sets the Binewskis apart has everything to do with intention and attitude—having a child who grows up to be a sideshow attraction seems unfortunate but not perverse; guiding one’s child into such a life inverts many of our most dearly held beliefs about beauty, children, and parenting, especially motherhood. These parents cherish their sons and daughters’ imperfections and take delight in their kids’ ugliness; everyone considers Lil’s addiction, self-harm, and prenatal poisoning clever rather than psychotic. The chemical cocktail Lil downs, which includes “cocaine, amphetamines, and arsenic,” calls to mind real images of reckless pregnancies of the past, from Jacqueline Kennedy smoking while carrying John-John to Larry Clark’s photograph of a pregnant woman shooting heroin. Yet ignorance and addiction don’t play as much of a role in Al and Lil’s construction of their family unit as does unabashed love of their own absurdity. Though the parents develop the idea to deform their kids as a way of raising their bottom line, they don’t treat the children any differently than, say, a family of aerialists might. They believe that love motivated their actions, and express joyful satisfaction with their grotesque breeding methods. They connect with their kids by celebrating their own bizarre past. In the novel’s opening scene, Al refers to his offspring as his “dreamlets,” and tenderly relates to them the story of their mother’s success as a “geek,” which, in the carny parlance of the day, meant making a performance of biting off the head of a chicken.

With precedents in both Tod Browning’s Freaks and John Waters’s oeuvre, and appearing at the height of Bush I, Geek Love presented an oddly timeless atmosphere that reiterated, in its twisted way, a romance of alternative culture and old weird America, and coded it to reach anyone for whom difference and diversity had always seemed desirable. The book felt like a fairy tale for people who saw family dynamics realistically, rather than through a saccharine (and ultimately more questionable) Cosby Show frame of reference, and continues to resonate for readers who accept as beautiful the difficulties and pleasures of having relatives, and who embrace the nonconformity of their tribes with pride.

James Hannaham is the author of the novels God Says No (McSweeney’s, 2009) and Delicious Foods (Little, Brown, 2015).