Katherine Dunn reportedly said, “All the time I was working on Geek Love, it was like my own private autism.” If so, Dunn’s interior life is subtle and complex and a little creepy. She sees under the simulacrum of “norm” family life that we present publicly to another world of secrecy, manipulation, and pain.
Start with a couple, Al and Lily Binewski, who own and operate a traveling carnival. They have the standard midway games and concessions. Contortionists, sword swallowers, geeks, acrobats, and lion tamers all vie to remove dollars from the pockets of lookie loos that wander to the show. But the big draws have been literally bred by the Binewskis through a pregnancy diet of drugs and other poisons. The resulting birth defects range widely in severity. Some of the babies don’t live; they are preserved in jars, regularly polished, and viewed for a price. The survivors include a legless, armless, “Aqua Boy”; Siamese twins joined from the waist down (they play piano four-hands); and a humpback, albino dwarf (not strange enough for an act of her own, but still useful as a general purpose assistant). Their final child appears so normal they are about to leave him at a laundromat in the middle of the night when they discover his special power.
The family is obsessively private, yet make their living through blatant exhibitionism. With no permanent home aside from a 38-foot trailer, they consider “stuck homes” a trap compared to the freedom they enjoy. Their days are filled with training for their acts, the nights with performing. The surface is all freak. Roiling and dysfunctional dynamics — deep misunderstanding between parents and children, jealousy among the kids — rival any telenovela family. Their insularity is both their power and the undoing.
As horrifying as the idea of purposely creating birth defects is, it’s not the most disturbing thing that happens in the book. Indeed, we learn to sympathize with the children and their parents. We see their humanity and watch with disgust as others react violently to their presence. Conventional notions of normalcy and ethical behavior are called into question.
Beautiful writing, Shakespearean pathos, and fine attention to detail make for a finely-wrought world that — like a voyeur paying to see the freaks — I was fascinated to visit, but happier still to return from to my “normal” life.