First published back in March of 1989, ‘Geek Love’ was US author Katherine Dunn’s fourth full-length novel.  As detailed in the beginning few pages of the book, portions of the novel were originally published in the ‘Mississippi Mud Book Of Days’ and the ‘Looking Glass Bookstore Review’ in 1983 and 1988 respectively.  Due to the novel’s strong nature it has become quite infamous since its original publication, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

DLS Synopsis:
When Aloysius Binewski inherits the family carnival from his deceased father, he finds that it’s hard to keep the travelling carnival employees happy all of the time, and soon enough, one by one they begin to leave.  And that’s when Al Binewski comes up with the idea of creating his very own family of freak attractions, who would be permanently with him, working in the Binewski Carnival Fabulon.  After all – the carnival spirit was truly in the Binewski blood.

And so, whilst his wife Lillian Hinchcliff Binewski (aka Crystal Lil), tried for a baby, and then later during Crystal Lil’s pregnancy, Al fed her a veritable diet of narcotics – from cocaine to amphetamines to arsenic – all to encourage extreme diversity in the make-up of their offspring.

Their first surviving child was Arturo (Arty), who became dubbed the ‘Aqua Boy’ due to him only possessing flippers where his arms and legs should be.   Then came Iphigenia and Electra (Iphy and Elly) the Siamese twins.  Joined at the waist and sharing one set of hips and legs – the conjoined twins would pose all number of private wonderings for the curious punters to the Binewski Carnival Fabulon.

Next followed Olympia Binewski (aka Hopalong McGurk) - a bald albino hunchback dwarf.  Oly proved to be less of a freak attraction and more of a helpful worker for the carnival – oiling down Arty before each performance and generally looking after various family matters.

The final Binewski child to survive Lil’s damaging concoction of drugs during pregnancy, they named Fortunato (aka Chick).  Possessing no obvious signs of abnormality which would please the family he had been born into – the young boy was almost abandoned in a grocery store – saved only when Al and Lil realised young Chick’s truly unique gift – powerful telekinetic capabilities.

And sure enough, Al’s home-made travelling carnival proved to be a great success.  However, as Arty the Aqua Boy entered his early teens, he began to take over more and more of the carnival.  He would begin to add an entirely contrived element of psychic prediction into his performances – drawing increasingly inquisitive and curious crowds from miles around.

Arty’s natural flare for dramatizing his performances and giving the crowds what deep-down they all want to hear, hits a particularly resonant chord with the emotionally lost.  And slowly, Arturo Binewski begins to form his own private travelling cult of worshippers – desperately seeking salvation through the gradual amputation of all their limbs until they are nothing but a head and torso – mimicking their great leader.

But with the amount of dedicated followers for Arturo the Aqua Man’s life-defying invitation to ultimate sanctity growing by the day, the newly-acquired power begins to take its effect on Arturo.  Furthermore, the Binewski’s are still only young in their respective lives – and each day they are working away their childhoods.  None more so than with young Chick who has been assisting the resident surgeon, Dr Phyllis, with the constant flow of amputations permitted to the Admitted as they strive for Peace, Isolation and Purity.

Soon enough, the mounting pressure within the tightly-knit family unit becomes too much.  Arty’s dominance over the Fabulon has escalated too far.  His control over the lives of his family has eroded too many boundaries.  And along with this internal decay within the family –bitter tragedy will undoubtedly follow...

DLS Review:
Written from the first-person-perspective of Olympia Binewski – the novel is essentially split into two distinct time periods – whilst Olympia and her family grew in the Binewski Carnival Fabulon, and many years later, when Olympia is thirty-eight years old, presenting on Radio KBNK as Olympia McGurk and telling her story to her daughter Miranda.

Although the tale is split into these two distinct storylines, the ‘travelling freak show’ storyline is by far and away the predominant one – not only taking up substantially more pages, but being far more involved, fleshed-out and undeniably impactful.  Indeed, this side of the tale is very much a warped coming-of-age story; telling a tale wrapped up in conflict, confused feelings of love and loyalty, family pressure, and the horrendous consequences that can occur through power and dominance.

Let’s face it – the whole tale is pretty messed-up from the very beginning.  Dunn has fabricated a strange existence that seems somehow entirely believable in its elaborate but nevertheless convincing madness.  With each chapter, Dunn jumps ever onwards with another quite strange step into the otherwise surreal.  This ‘stepping-stone’ process is a reasonably gradual one – with no huge leaps in the madness – so that the evolving series of events and various plot developments seem entirely plausible and consistently fluid.

Although there are definite elements of Clive Barker’s ‘Cabal’ (1988) or indeed James Herbert’s ‘Others’ (1999) within the very backbone of the tale – ‘Geek Love’ is nevertheless not a horror novel per se – although it is crammed with strong elements of the taboo and the downright perverse.  Furthermore, there’s plenty of hard-to-swallow weirdness that makes it edge towards the horrific, but ultimately this is a story that cuts open the human psyche, exposing a litany of ugliness and perversity alongside equal measures of beauty and churning desire – all without driving too deep into the easily-definable fabric of what makes a ‘horror novel’ (if you were to try and pin such a badge onto a style of fiction).

Dunn interweaves a whole host of secondary characters who each play a valid and purposeful part on the progression of the unashamedly meandering storyline.  Indeed, the sheer size to the cast of characters in the entirety of the tale is another element that keeps the reader on their toes throughout.  However, Dunn doesn’t afford the same level of depth to the characterisation for each of these characters.  Many of which – such as with Dr Phyllis - are barely fleshed out bones of a character – which sadly holds back the final impact of certain developments and twists in the plot.

Another disappointing element with the story is the definite sagging in the middle portion of the book.  Dunn does keep together a pace and some degree of momentum throughout the tale – however there is only so much weight that should be put on to the escalating oddness of the tale, without incorporating a solid direction and structure to the overall plot.  And it’s this lack of any substantial plot that eventually lets the tale down.

That said, ‘Geek Love’ is still a truly fascinating and entirely original read that jams in such an eclectic mix of bizarreness that it can’t help but drag the reader into its mind-boggling cyclone of carnival mayhem.  Expect nothing but the most outrageous degrees of abstract humanity – until it’s those without a defining defect or truly unique aspect to their body, who are ultimately the freaks.  Indeed, gradually, page by page, it’s the ‘norms’ who become the outcasts in this compelling world where utter uniqueness in a physical form is what makes ones ultimate worth.

The novel runs for a total of 348 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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