Here’s a little etymology tidbit that was news to me until I picked up this novel: we get our modern word “geek” from a circus term of the early 1900’s that referred to sideshow freaks. (Hence the phrase “freaks and geeks”…it’s all coming together for me, folks!)
Geek Love, then, both does and does not deliver what it promises in its title. Yes, it is about circus geeks, but it is more about the complex, tragically twisted hearts of main characters who end up reminding you more of yourself than you would ever admit out loud. Yes, it is about love, but it is more about how hate, jealousy, ambition, and selfishness vie for control in even our most intimate relationships.
The book opens up with Miss Olympia Binewski, albino hunch-backed dwarf and middle child, recounting her favorite childhood memory: her circus ring-leader father telling his children how special they are. They are special, we learn, because Lil and Al Binewski have spent years experimenting with a wide concoction of drugs in order to breed their own freak show. The results? Arturo the flipper-extremedied Aqua Boy, Iphegenia and Electra, Siamese twins, Olympia herself, and Chick, who is outwardly normal but possesses a powerful hidden talent.
As the Fabulon Circus traverses every backroad and farm town in America, the Binewski children must navigate their adolescence in a world that is both intensely isolated and horrifyingly gritty. For Oly, this means struggling to find her role as one of the “less useful” talents of the family and reconciling her intense love for her brother Arty with her knowledge that his manipulative tendencies are leading the entire family down a treacherous path, especially when a cult following–of people looking to “shed” their limbs and be more like The Great Arturo–begins to form.
Dunn explains in an interview with The A.V. Club that “There are really two primary preoccupations of mine involved in this book. One of course is this concept of the cult, and the how-come of that. And the other was the long debate of nature vs. nurture.” In my opinion, Dunn explores those topics voraciously in this novel, without holding back or editing out any of the ugly bits. The result is a narrative that is gripping, funny, scary, and familiar. One thing that surprised me when I went to research the book after reading it was the publication date: 1989. I had been guessing far more contemporary, which is in part due to Dunn’s intentional lack of decade-specific technology–the story could have taken place in 1950 or 1990–but also speaks to Dunn’s ability to latch onto themes that our culture has continued to be fascinated with over two decades later. Genetic manipulation? Total hot topic. Cult icon followings? All over the place. Dysfunctional families? Well…that’s kind of timeless. In any case, Geek Love has aged gracefully, without losing any of its relevance in the 21st century.
Following Dunn down the rabbit hole of this book, you will encounter telekinetic toddlers, Machiavellian circus performers, assassinations, an amputee cult, and more grotesque physical deformities than you can shake a stick at, but what saves this book from being a total gimmicky waste of time is that Dunn doesn’t rest the weight of her story on these surface elements; rather, she uses them as a colorful and haunting canvas on which to paint a very universal story. In the end, Geek Love is about family, desire, and the intricacies of morality–something resonates with all of us, freaks and norms alike.
Learn more about Geek Love and circus freaks: