Carnivals have always attracted the curious and the curiosity seeker. It’s common to associate the strange with the horrific, but in Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, there is no accidental or visually biased association. The horror is real. This National Book Award Finalist for fiction in 1989 is an extremely dark fantasy and a highly disturbing horror. Random House Vintage | Paperback | 2002 (first published in 1989) | 348pp
The Binewski family lives at the very center of their own artificially-created universe and as gods by their own right. When Al and Lily Binewski’s carnival had begun to lose acts, they decided to breed their own sideshows. With the help of drugs and some radioactive chemicals, Lily gave birth to Arturo (with flippers instead of limbs), Iphy and Elly (Siamese twins), Oly (albino, hunchback, and dwarf), and Chick (physically normal but with the powers of telepathy). As the children grew, so did their notoriety. The money came pouring in as more and more acts decided to jump on the bandwagon and tag along with their success.
The main character is Olympia (Oly), the tiny albino hunchback, and the story is told through her perspective. She’s the lowest rung in the Binewski family, without her own act. All she can do is throw the sales pitch and usher people into the various tents, hoping to make a profit, and help out around the carnival. Although she’s not the money maker, she’s proud to be a freak, proud to not be a ‘norm’.
The story rotates between her childhood through adolescence, and her life as an adult long after her carnie days. It’s the story of her brother Arturo’s rise to power and his eventual takeover of the carnival, and of Oly’s desperation to please Arturo in every way. There’s murder, rape, infanticide, prostitution, incestual relationships, an Arturian cult of followers who decide to nip off fingers, toes, and limbs to be as free from what society deems ‘normal’ as Arturo is, a carnival nurse who pushes lobotomies on her patients, and an assortment of sideshows and gimmicks (such as your very own maggot farm available for purchase, little critters chomping away on the fingers and toes of the recently liberated).
Think of the Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, then think of the exact opposite.
Oly lets herself get pushed around by Arturo but as she gets older, she gains a voice. It doesn’t do her much good because her desires still revolve around Arturo. As an adult, she admits her past failings, but she still loves who she is and where she came from.
She talks. People talk easily to me. they think a bald albino hunchback dwarf can’t hide anything. My worst is all out in the open. It makes it necessary for people to tell you about themselves. They begin out of simple courtesy. Just being visible is my biggest confession, so they try to set me at ease by revealing our equality, by dragging out their own less apparent deformities. That’s how it starts. But I am like a stranger on the bus and they get hooked on having a listener. They go too far because I am one listener who is in no position to judge or find fault. They stretch out their dampest secrets because a creature like me has no virtues or morals. If I am “good” (and they assume that I am), it’s obviously for lack of opportunity to be otherwise. And I listen. I listen eagerly, warmly, because I care. They tell me everything eventually.
Geek Love is truly terrifying on many levels. The dirty feel of the carnival and the Binewskis, the characters who become attracted to all of the horror the Binewskis can dish up – such as the nurse who never removes her surgical mask and is always game for an unnecessary amputation, the desperate losers who become Arturo’s flock and begin to maim themselves so they, too, can become freaks, Arturo’s control and manipulation of the family members while the parents cast a blind eye, the sacrifices that Oly makes just to please her older brother.
Even the characters you might think have some good sense get turned around, such as the reporter who wrote the following, but was eventually drawn into Arturo’s cult.
“Arturism was founded,” wrote Sanderson, “on the greed and spite of a transcendental maggot named Arturo Binewski, who uses his own genetic defects and the weakness of the unemployed and illiterate to create an insanely self-destructive following that has fed his maniacal ego…”
I enjoy getting lost in a story, even a dark horror. But this – it was a nightmare I wanted to escape. The writing is superb and the character development is a feat – especially with Oly, her faults are raw and naked, and even understandable. However, I did not find much in the way of enjoyment at all.
by Katherine Dunn