Books We Forgot We Loved: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

by Matthew Gallaway

Geek Love is about a family of carnival freaks who were “bred” by their parents to be as deformed as possible. One of the children — Arturo — is born with flippers instead of arms and legs, and he founds a religion in which his followers slowly amputate parts of their body to attain higher levels of devotion. The book was published to great critical acclaim and commercial success in 1989, so we decided to take a look at it 20-plus years later to see how it’s faring. Do you have a book you forgot you loved? Let us know in the comments!

[Ed. note: The following is very spoilery! Don’t click through if you haven’t already read Geek Love!]

MG: As the one who recommended this, I have to ask: so what did you think on the whole?

Edith: I had a mixed bag with it. I remember loving the first 100 pages or so, and then getting a little annoyed, and then getting REALLY annoyed, and then just hoping everyone died, which [BIG SPOILER ALERT] they did, but in the least satisfying way. I had to go back and reread the passage where everyone burns up and I was like, “oh, is everyone actually burning up, or is that some weird metaphor like all the other weird, awkward metaphors that have been used in this book?” I underlined a passage that for whatever reason made me particularly annoyed. Here it is:

“How are they?” I whispered. He grinned the kid grin at me as though he’d walked on his hands or found a frog.

“Bushed. Pooped out. Beat.” They were asleep. Iphy as bloodless as a rain-drained worm.

I don’t know, somehow that embodied the strain of the text for me sometimes.

MG: I remember that passage. I should say that I still loved the book as a whole, but maybe a little less than I remembered. What bothered me more than the metaphors, I think, was my inability to really understand the motivations of certain characters, namely the father in the family, who started out very strong and became increasingly weak.

Edith: YEAH! I feel like Dunn just let go of things haphazardly.

MG: Yes, I felt like there were perhaps too many balls the air (to use a bad metaphor lol).

Edith: No it’s true, which is why things felt weird when they got tied up with the Giant Fire.

MG: To put some context around it, I think this book was exhilarating for me to read in 1990 after a decade of Reagan/Bush I. And keep in mind this was before the freak show called the internet.

Edith: It’s also kind of amazing in ways you don’t expect.

MG: I really love the twins. I think about them the most.

Edith: They’re the best people in the book.

MG: It’s so sad when the mean one becomes sort of brain-damaged.

Edith: Ugh yeah, but also the whole melodrama at the end felt so weak. Like who would kill their siamese twin by stabbing them in the eye with scissors? I mean, who knows, maybe that’s what you do. But also that all felt so pasted together.

MG: The thing I realized this time around was that the book contains so many amazing ideas, but the storytelling at times left me wanting more. As I said before, I wanted more information or plausibility about why the characters were acting in the ways they did. I’m pretty much in favor of anything built around the idea of inverting/subverting the notion of what’s “normal,” although again, that idea is probably less shocking or novel now than it was in 1990.

Edith: If you could sleep with one person in the book, who would it be? I found myself wanting to hook up with Arty! I mean, I didn’t, but I did? Or in one of those sort of “oh shoot, this is weirddddd” sex episodes? Which was sort of an interesting thing on sexuality, because I also hated Arty, and thought he was annoying and pathetic. But I guess confidence trumps all?

MG: I loved the twins too — all of them having sex was great! I probably wouldn’t want to sleep with them though. It’s a very lady-oriented book (except for Arty), so I wasn’t feeling a lot of heat for any of the men, except for maybe the dad at the beginning, but then his weakness and lack of compassion really turned me off. I basically hated him when the twins were pregnant.

Edith: Oh, yeah. The twins were probably the sexiest. Miranda or the twins. My favorite part of the book — maybe, I think — was imagining what it would be like to share a vagina with someone. Like, how COMPLICATED. And when Iphy (or Ephy) was talking about how the other one had a boyfriend who loved her, so she acted all quiet — so nuts!

MG: But it made sense — how one could sort of “turn off” while the other did her thing.

Edith: I loved the ways logic and physical freakdom met.

MG: Yes, those were the best parts, along with some of the overarching philosophy, at least for me. Like there’s a line on page 191 that I think sums up the whole book for me. (This is the journalist writing): “I become convinced, for an hour, that Arty is not injuring them but is allowing them to acknowledge the pain in their lives in order to escape from it.” I could see people NOW mutilating themselves like this in order to follow a cult or religious leader.

Edith: I felt that the journalist was a stand-in for the reader frequently, strugging between disgust and infatuation.

MG: Yes, I agree — his personality was pretty much a blank slate and gave Dunn the opportunity to tell us what was going on.

Edith: Let’s give the book a 1–100. I give it a 64.

MG: I still think it’s a book very much worth reading, which I guess means I give it a 93!

Edith: It’s definitely not like any other book I’ve read.

MG: Also I do think about it a lot — which I think is telling.

Edith: There’s a filthiness which I kind of love, a cruddy, un-sexy filthiness.

MG: Also the blatant disregard for most things we all take for granted, like the idea that every human is worth the same thing, whereas to the family, they are completely valued according to their deformities. Like when Arty tells Olympia she “wouldn’t have been a keeper” because she was too normal.

Edith: The whole book just made me want to Google-image Katherine Dunn a bunch.

MG: Yes, she seems crazy in a good way — did your book have the afterword by her?

Edith: No!

MG: About how she dropped out of life and traveled the world and became a boxing reporter? Her story is amazing — she published two novels, I think, and then had a revelation that she didn’t know how to write, and spent a decade on Geek Love. She also has been working for TWENTY YEARS on her next one, which I think is about boxing. The Paris Review published a story last summer, I think. I’ll definitely be reading, if/when it arrives.

Matthew Gallaway is the author of The Metropolis Case, which was recently published by Crown.