“They thought to use and shame me but I win out by nature, because a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born.” –Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
I read this book for my capstone class that I took my junior year. Ironically enough, I was also watching American Horror Story: Freak Show at the time and they have such similar elements that it was easy to forget what happened in which story. However, I highly recommend reading this book and doing some research on the historical American freak show if you have any plans to watch AHS: Freak Show because it makes soooo much more sense and is so much more enjoyable. Anyway…
The most important thing to keep in mind while discussing this book is to try to be as sensitive as possible. This book was written in the late 80s so a lot of the terminology is outdated, but I will try to discuss it using politically correct terms as often as I can. If I misspeak, please feel free to shoot me an email and correct me. I am a human and I make mistakes from time to time, but it is not my intention to offend. Please correct me and I will update this blog.
Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love is actually two stories in one. One story is set in the past and follows Binewskis, a family of circus performers. But they aren’t just circus performers; they’re freak show performers. The parents, Al and Crystal Lil, dreamed of having their own little performing family, so they did all kinds of drugs and other awful things while they were trying to get pregnant. And it worked. Their children include the devilish Arturo (“Arty”), who has flippers for hand and feet, conjoined twins Electra (“Elly”) and Iphigenia (“Iphy”), narrator Olympia (“Oly”) who has dwarfism, albinism, and a hunchback, and baby Fortunato (“Chick”) who has telekinetic powers.
The really warped part is that when Chick was born, Crystal Lil and Al were going to abandon him because he didn’t have any physical deformities and they didn’t think he would make a valuable addition to their performance. Which is definitely appalling, but I think it’s an interesting commentary on parents that will not accept children with disabilities.
The second story takes place in the present and deals with adult Oly stalking a girl named Miranda, who turns out to be Oly’s daughter that she gave up for adoption. Oly does not seem to be in contact with anyone else from the Binewski family except for her mother who runs the boarding house that Oly lives in, but all the years of drug use have made Crystal Lil unstable and she no longer remembers who Oly is. Miranda also has a small deformity: a small tail. Miranda is approached by this weirdo lady known as Mary Lick that wants to pay for Miranda to have her tail removed, but Oly is determined to convince her to keep it. It’s a very odd side plot.
In the first story, as the children grow older and perform, they all compete with one other to draw in the biggest crowds. Oly isn’t nearly as competitive as her siblings, so she typically stands outside the performance tents and shouts for people to come inside. Anyway, eventually Arty ends up being the one who has the most fans, and he gets it into his head that he should form his own cult (known as “Arturism”) and have his followers worship him. IT’S SUPER NOT OKAY.
Arty talks his followers into having their limbs amputated little by little, beginning with small bits like fingers and toes, so they can be like him and that will make them great and not be a slave to society’s ideologies of perfect bodies. Which is nice in theory I guess, but I’m definitely not down with the whole mutilation bit. People that have both their arms and legs amputated are considered to be the highest people in Arty’s cult. Again, SUPER NOT OKAY.
While this is all going on, the twins, Elly and Iphy, are becoming sexually mature women and have men flocking to them. Unfortunately, since they are conjoined twins that share sexual organs, it makes it difficult for them to agree on sexual partners. Ultimately, they end up selling their virginity and continue to trade sexual favors for money when they aren’t performing. Eventually they end up with this guy known as “The Bag Man” who Arty has chosen for them and become pregnant by him. Elly is very against having the baby, so Arty forces her to have a lobotomy, which renders her incapacitated. Iphy remains mentally aware, so she gives birth to a ridiculously large baby that they call “Mumpo.”
Oly also wants to have a baby so she has Chick telekenetically remove Arturo’s sperm from his body and move it into her own body and that is how Miranda is conceived. (I lied in my other posts, I guess I just really like books with incest. ) Arty is overall displeased with Miranda when she is born because he doesn’t believe that she is freakish enough to join their family and makes Oly give her up for adoption. Oly would have been a good mother but Arty can’t let anyone else have any happiness. >.< Meanwhile, Mumpo is draining the twins of their energy. Elly regains her senses enough to slaughter Mumpo, and as revenge, Iphy stabs Elly to death in the neck with a pair of scissors, which unfortunately kills them both. And then Chick, who has been so overwhelmed by all of these events, loses his mind and telekenetically blows up the entire circus, killing himself and everyone else except for Crystal Lil, Oly, and a few others.
In the present, Oly has “befriended” Mary Lick and ends up killing her to stop her from forcing Miranda to have her tail removed and then commits suicide.
Dang. After getting all that out and remembering what happened, I really want to reread this book. I highly recommend it. Don’t forget– if I used wrong terminology please email me and I will correct it!