The Binewski’s are a self-made freak show of a traveling carnival. Arturo, the water boy, has flippers rather than arms and legs, Iphy and Elly, the signing Siamese twins, who tend towards brutal battles between themselves, Oly, the disappointing albino hunchback, and Chick, who looks completely normal but has a gift that could make or break the family. Al inherited the carnival from his father and when times started changing resulting in sparse attendance, Al decided he and his wife “Crystal” Lil would start their own self-contained freak show. Lil, while pregnant (and while not) took drugs and radioactive material to purposely alter the appearance of their children. The results were more than they could hope for and allowed the carnival to become popular once again. Al and Lil sound like the worst kind of parents – willingly altering their children’s appearance in order to keep the show on the road. Even though Al and Lil did horrible things to bring forth such children, Al and Lil love and care for their kids. However, the desire for the most freakish of appearances causes internal strife with the offspring, Arturo being the worst of the bunch.
Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn, is a whole different take on family values and one’s perception of “normal.” Narrated/told by Oly, Geek Love reveals how the family sees their altered appearances as normal and desirable, and sees those not like them as the freaks of the world – referred to as “norms” with scathing derision. Oly tells of her love for Arturo and how that is never enough for him. How Arturo’s desire to be the most popular attraction whittles away at the family’s unity and leads to competition. Arturo starts a most bizarre cult of followers, who desire to be limbless devotees and worshipers. Arturo’s self-serving ways are most identifiable when Chick comes into the world and Arturo’s need to be the top dog drives the family to places they can never come back from.
The book flips from past to present, with Oly trying to hide her true identity from her daughter Miranda, whose only freakish feature is a tail she keeps hidden unless she is performing. I found myself hoping that Oly would let Miranda know she was her mother. Oly is a character the reader can relate to – she wants the love and affection of her family. Her wholesome acceptance of her appearance is an inspiration to everyone – what is seen as weird and ugly is all within the eye of the beholder, as well as the confidence that comes with it.
Geek Love will leave the reader with a new sense of what is acceptable, both in terms of appearance and in terms of what the love of a family means to someone. Some scenes are brutally descriptive and hard to read, but all well worth the read.