I’ve never read Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love but I remember it being a big deal when it came out and also recall seeing it in bookstores for a long time after that.
KURT COBAIN AND COURTNEY LOVE were fans. Terry Gilliam—former Monty Pythonite and the director of Time Bandits, Brazil, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—calls it “the most romantic novel about love and family I have read. It made me ashamed to be so utterly normal.” In the ’90s, Harry Anderson, the magician and actor (he played the Judge on Night Court) optioned the film rights and wrote a movie script himself. Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist, adores it. “Certain books,” he says, “are so imaginative that they suck you into a world that you’d never known existed. They make you feel like you’re being let in on this secret. It’s life-changing.”
The book is Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, a dazzling oddball masterpiece published 25 years ago this month. It’s the tale of a circus sideshow called the Binewski Carnival Fabulon that hits hard times. (The titular “geek” refers to a sideshow performer who bites the heads off chickens.) When some of the show’s performers defect, its proprietors—Aloysius and Crystal Lil Binewski—decide to breed their own stable of freaks. Their methods are experimental and more than a little disturbing: They mess with their own DNA and biochemistry using various drugs, insecticides, and radioactive materials. It works: Lil gives birth to a boy with flippers for hands and feet, a set of Siamese twins joined at the waist, a hunchback albino dwarf, and a regular-looking baby with telekinetic powers. The Binewskis become freak superheroes, a team of way-weirdos, each with his own skills and powers.
It hardly sounds like mass-market material. But Geek Love has been a perennial best seller, and its cultural influence has been prodigious. The book has inspired and moved writers, artists, and performers to tell their own wild stories. Novelist Karen Russell read Geek Love for the first time when she was 15. She picked it up expecting a story of nerds in love, but found something else: “I felt electrocuted when I read that first page with Crystal Lil and her freak brood. I stood there in the bookstore and my jaw came unhinged. No book I’ve read, before or since, has given me that specific jolt.” Harlan Ellison describes Geek Love as “transformative” and adds: “Not only for its time and its subject matter, but for Katherine Dunn’s attack on the material. She had a stout voice and a clear insight.” Then there’s Jim Rose, who read Geek Love when he was a 30-year-old American touring Europe as a stunt performer with his wife’s family circus. The novel inspired him to launch his own sideshow in the US, the Jim Rose Circus, which toured with Lollapalooza, Nine Inch Nails, and then on its own through the ’90s. “Geek Love forces a movie into your head while you read it,” Rose says. “You barely even realize you’re reading words.” The only other book he could think of that had the same effect on him? Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (It must be the scene where the lady gets a hatchet in her head.)
[Illustration by Brandon Zimmerman]