We’ve all had our freak moments. Well, at least I know I’ve had mine; those moments when I’ve felt alienated from the rest of humanity because of the monster zit on my chin or because I couldn’t stop crying when my dog died (few of my close friends and family are dog lovers) or because I like to eat kimchi with spaghetti. But, sometimes, it’s those moments of alienation that deepen our human experience; it’s the fact that we’re all freaks on some level that unites us as human beings. I think this was the point that Katherine Dunn was trying to make with her novel, Geek Love.
I just wish she’d put a little more humanity in her characters because her geeks were freaks that I just couldn’t understand.
Olympia “Oly” Binewski is an albino hunchback. Her parents, Al and Crystal Lil, are carnies who have bred their own freak show: Arturo (“Arty”), the Fish Boy with flippers; Electra (Elly) and Iphigenia (Iphy), the Siamese Twins; and Fortunato (“Chick”), a normal-looking boy with powers of telekinesis. I suppose the point of the book was to show that being a freak on the outside doesn’t mean you’re not human on the inside, but it was difficult for me to sympathize with the characters and see their humanity when they made such off-the-wall life decisions. Perhaps part of Dunn’s point is that society makes freaks out of people who are different, but I don’t think she did a very good job of showing that, if it was.
As Oly is rather nondescript for a circus freak, she doesn’t have her own act. Instead, she’s responsible for various tasks around the show, such as selling tickets and hosing Arty down after each show. But, as a result, she’s more of an observer than anyone else in her family. She’s best qualified to tell the story of the Binewskis, which hinges on her brother Arty’s Machiavellian rise and fall.
Arty is a thoroughly detestable character, constantly manipulating those around him and showing no love for anyone. I just couldn’t understand why everyone in his family seemed to love him so much; some, to the point of incest (gross). The family, for the most part, puts up with Arty’s scheming, and he manipulates them more than any others, which eventually leads to their demise.
With such a dysfunctional family life, you’d think that Oly would be a sympathetic character, but I found myself oddly unable to feel anything for her. I’m still not sure what it was about her that I just couldn’t understand; ultimately, I think that Dunn failed to give me anything real to connect with in Oly, or in any of the other characters, for that matter.
Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just narrow-minded and unsympathetic. But if being turned off by this weirdly flat tale of radioactive children and megalomaniacs makes me a freak, then I can live with that.