Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! I am continuing the trend of contemporary female authors, this time focusing on another recommendation: Katherine Dunn and her 1989 novel Geek Love. This work has taken on legendary status among a certain type of cult-ish book lover, and I had known about it for years but never sat down to read it until now. And I have to say this is one of the best books I have encountered in this portion of the experiment, right up there with The Secret History and Wise Blood from last year.
Since I’m taking more of a “review” tack this year I will eschew most of the plot points in the hope that readers who haven’t discovered this gem will want to spiral through the tale. But a quick summary: this book takes place over two separate time periods but covers the same family, the Binewskis and their traveling “Carnival Fabulon.” In trying to save their business, the family resorts to some unconventional and dangerous means for birthing “freak” children which then become the main acts of the show, eventually bringing about its downfall. Now I want to get down into just what this novel gets so right.
This is one of the best-constructed novels I’ve ever encountered. There is not a sentence out of place and this feels like a story that took a decade to write (which it did; various pieces of it were published in literary magazines throughout the Eighties). Even the few things that jumped out at me, such as an adverb here or there or a sentence ending with a preposition didn’t bother me as the writing is so phenomenal. This helps with the major themes, which off the top of my head could be: the body and its perceptions, the concept of “freaks” and “norms,” cults, carnivals, technology, telekinesis, the list is endless. And they are all covered in depth and with some of the best drawn characters I’ve ever read. Each individual of the family brings their own drama to the story, and each has a role to play in its undoing. And while there is a fair amount of content that may turn people off (incest is a theme that hovers if not technically present), I found that the more outrageous the plot became the more I enjoyed it.
I want to just briefly stop at the “freak” theme that I felt had reverberations in the sense that LGBTQ people are finally gaining acceptance from “norm” society. I also can’t help but see the continued media obsession with beauty paralleled with the later parts of the story, in which the narrator Oly works out a plan to save her own daughter from someone she fears will change her. This book was miles ahead of its time in commenting on this and I think it deserves a hell of a lot of credit for that.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone wanting to know how to capture the most important elements of the novel. Next I’m going to take on another recent book written by a woman (Julie Shumacher’s 2014 novel Dear Committee Members) before I pivot into science fiction territory with my manuscript rewrite. Thanks as always for reading!
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.