Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love is one of those novels that kept me turning the page just to see what strange atrocities awaited on the next page. The first sentence is so surreal and beautiful:
”When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned towards her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”
I read the first half of the book in one sitting, flipping the pages and shaking my head in awe at the layers of strangeness weaved into the book.
The book is a story of both the past and the present of the Binewski family: Aloysius and Crystal Lil and their freak children. The story in the past begins 5 years after Aloysius’s father’s death (whose ashes are welded in an urn to the top of one of the campers). The once-successful carnival is faltering, recruitments are hard to find due to the war, and after Crystal Lil tries her hand at skywalking and falls, the pair marry and decide to create, quite literally, their own freak show: “The resourceful pair began experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes.” The results of these experiments are the Binewski children, who became the stars of the carnivals. The children who didn’t make it still have a place in the carnival: their remains are displayed in glass jars in a museum-like homage.
The story in the present begins after the events that are to unfold throughout the novel. Olivia, the albino dwarf narrator, is a grown woman with a daughter of her own. Crystal Lil is a senile and deaf apartment manager of the complex where both Olivia and her grown daughter have apartments. Miranda, the daughter, does not know Olivia is her mother. These three are the only surviving Binewskis.
Two things struck me immediately about this book:
First, the obvious allusions to Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The book begins with a quote from Prospero and a few chapters in, we find the name of Olivia’s daughter is Miranda. If I were writing this for a literature class, I would analyze the connections between the play and this novel, but I’m not! Mwhahaha! I am, however, putting it out there for anyone reading this who needs a research paper topic for a literature course.
Next, this book, like a play, is divided into books, or “acts.” Geek Love has four Books: the first sets the scene for the rest of the story to unfold. The principal characters are introduced, both past and present, but the reader isn’t quite sure what’s going to happen. The first book ends with Olivia looking at old Binewski family posters and comparing a photograph of her estranged-daughter to seek family resemble. The second and third books both start with a scene in the immediate present before sliding back in time. By the fourth book, the story in the past has been resolved and the reader witnesses the resolution of the frame narrative.
Another note on structure is that each chapter is named, with chapters focused on the present started with “Notes for Now” which is a good way to handle the switching of time. It would get too repetitive, I think, to keep indicating the time shifts in the text, so using the chapter titles is effective. All of the chapters have bizarre titles (not surprising given the rest of the book) and are relatively short. The chapters during important parts (the end of Book 3) are slightly longer.
I like the short, named chapters, and was considering doing something similar with Calliope. Another thing I noted was how Dunn handled the large cast of characters, since this is something I’m having some problems with my novel-in-progress. All of the concession venders are “red-heads” – sometimes the red-heads are singled out, but most times they aren’t. This is similar to how the general circus employees, or “rousties” are handled in my book. Like Dunn’s characters, the Calliope is divided into two distinct groups: the performers and the non-performers. The focus is mainly on the performers, but I’m always aware of the other group hanging around in the shadows.
Although all of Geek Love is told from one narrator’s POV (Olivia), the inconsistencies in the narrator make it hard to really get a handle on the person telling the story. This is part of the charm, but also a distraction. I’d definitely have to consider Olivia as an unreliable narrator. I’m trying a different tact with Calliope: multiple POVs. Since the majority of the story takes place in the same time frame, with a few exceptions, this works to create a full picture of the circus. This wouldn’t have worked with Dunn’s book since the principal characters are no longer able to tell their own stories.
Regardless, Geek Love is a fascinating read and well-worth the occasional moments of confusion. I’d definitely recommend it, especially for the Shakespeare student wanting to write a modern interpretation type paper. Enjoy!