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Geek Love

Geek Love

4.3 98
by Katherine Dunn

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National Book Award finalist

Here is the unforgettable story of the Binewskis, a circus-geek family whose matriarch and patriarch have bred their own exhibit of human oddities (with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes). Their offspring include Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs and a megalomaniac ambition worthy of Genghis Khan


National Book Award finalist

Here is the unforgettable story of the Binewskis, a circus-geek family whose matriarch and patriarch have bred their own exhibit of human oddities (with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes). Their offspring include Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs and a megalomaniac ambition worthy of Genghis Khan . . . Iphy and Elly, the lissome Siamese twins . . . albino hunchback Oly, and the outwardly normal Chick, whose mysterious gifts make him the family’s most precious—and dangerous—asset. 

As the Binewskis take their act across the backwaters of the U.S., inspiring fanatical devotion and murderous revulsion; as its members conduct their own Machiavellian version of sibling rivalry, Geek Love throws its sulfurous light on our notions of the freakish and the normal, the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and the obscene. Family values will never be the same.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A Fellini movie in ink. . . . Geek Love throws a punch.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Wonderfully descriptive. . . . Dunn [has a] tremendous imagination.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Like most great novels, this one keeps the reader marveling at the daring of the author.” –Philadelphia Inquirer

“Unrelentingly bizarre . . . perverse but riveting. . . . Will keep you turning the pages.” –Chicago Tribune

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This audacious, mesmerizing novel should carry a warning: ``Reader Beware.'' Those entering the world of carnival freaks described by narrator Olympia Binewski, a bald, humpbacked albino dwarf, will find no escape from a story at once engrossing and repellent, funny and terrifying, unreal and true to human nature. Dunn's vivid, energetic prose, her soaring imagination and assured narrative skill fuse to produce an unforgettable tale. The premise is bizarre. Art and Lily, owners of Binewski's Fabulon, a traveling carnival, decide to breed their own freak show by creating genetically altered children through the use of experimental drugs. ``What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?'' muses Lily. Eventually their family consists of Arty, aka Arturo the Aqua Boy, born with flippers instead of limbs, who performs swimming inside a tank and soon learns how to manipulate his audience; Electra and Iphigenia, Siamese twins and pianists; the narrator, Oly; and Fortunato, also called the Chick, who seems normal at birth, but whose telekinetic powers become apparent just as his brokenhearted parents are about to abandon him. More than anatomy has been altered. Arty is a monsterpower hungry, evil, malicious, consumed by ``dark, bitter meanness and . . . jagged rippling jealousy.'' Yet he has the capacity to inspire adoration, especially that of Oly, who is his willing slave, and who arranges to bear his child, Miranda, who appears ``norm,'' but has a tiny tail. A spellbinding orator, Arty uses his ability to establish a religious cult, in which he preaches redemption through the sacrifice of body partsdigits and limbs.``I want the losers who know they're losers. I want those who have a choice of tortures and pick me.'' This raw, shocking view of the human condition, a glimpse of the tormented people who live on the fringe, makes readers confront the dark, mad elements in every society. After a hiatus of almost two decades, the author of Attic and Truck has produced a novel that everyone will be talking about, a brilliant, suspenseful, heartbreaking tour de force. (Mar . )
Library Journal
Guiding us into the world of the grotesque, Dunn produces a novel of compassion, insight, and macabre humor. At its center are Al and Lil Binewski, carnival owners who breed freak offspring through drug use so that they can perform in the show. Over the years, this ghoulish process becomes the norm; indeed, as we share the experiences of the children, we find that for this close-knit family, a child's signs of normalcy are seen as a real threat. What elevates this work is Dunn's controlled, matter-of-fact narrative, her skillful character development, and her relentless insistence that we address these people and their concerns in human terms. Highly recommended.-- Joseph M. Levandoski, Free Lib. of Philadelphia

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.16(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt


The Nuclear Family: His Talk, Her Teeth

"When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing. 'Spread your lips, sweet Lil,' they'd cluck, 'and show us your choppers!' "

This same Crystal Lil, our star-haired mama, sitting snug on the built-in sofa that was Arty's bed at night, would chuckle at the sewing in her lap and shake her head. "Don't piffle to the children, Al. Those hens ran like whiteheads."

Nights on the road this would be, between shows and towns in some campground or pull-off, with the other vans and trucks and trailers of Binewski's Carnival Fabulon ranged up around us, safe in our portable village.

After supper, sitting with full bellies in the lamp glow, we Binewskis were supposed to read and study. But if it rained the story mood would sneak up on Papa. The hiss and tick on the metal of our big living van distracted him from his papers. Rain on a show night was catastrophe. Rain on the road meant talk, which, for Papa, was pure pleasure.

"It's a shame and a pity, Lil," he'd say, "that these offspring of yours should only know the slumming summer geeks from Yale."

"Princeton, dear," Mama would correct him mildly. "Randall will be a sophomore this fall. I believe he's our first Princeton boy."

We children would sense our story slipping away to trivia. Arty would nudge me and I'd pipe up with, "Tell about the time when Mama was the geek!" and Arty and Elly and Iphy and Chick would all slide into line with me on the floor between Papa's chair and Mama.

Mama would pretend to be fascinated by her sewing and Papa would tweak his swooping mustache and vibrate his tangled eyebrows, pretending reluctance. "WellIll . . ." he'd begin, "it was a long time ago . . ."

"Before we were born!"

"Before . . ." he'd proclaim, waving an arm in his grandest ringmaster style, "before I even dreamed you, my dreamlets!"

"I was still Lillian Hinchcliff in those days," mused Mama. "And when your father spoke to me, which was seldom and reluctantly, he called me 'Miss.' "

"Miss!" we would giggle. Papa would whisper to us loudly, as though Mama couldn't hear, "Terrified! I was so smitten I'd stutter when I tried to talk to her. 'M-M-M-Miss . . .' I'd say."

We'd giggle helplessly at the idea of Papa, the GREAT TALKER, so flummoxed.

"I, of course, addressed your father as Mister Binewski."

"There I was," said Papa, "hosing the old chicken blood and feathers out of the geek pit on the morning of July 3rd and congratulating myself for having good geek posters, telling myself I was going to sell tickets by the bale because the weekend of the Fourth is the hottest time for geeks and I had a fine, brawny geek that year. Enthusiastic about the work, he was. So I'm hosing away, feeling very comfortable and proud of myself, when up trips your mama, looking like angelfood, and tells me my geek has done a flit in the night, folded his rags as you might say, and hailed a taxi for the airport. He leaves a note claiming his pop is very sick and he, the geek, must retire from the pit and take his fangs home to Philadelphia to run the family bank."

"Brokerage, dear," corrects Mama.

"And with your mama, Miss Hinchcliff, standing there like three scoops of vanilla I can't even cuss! What am I gonna do? The geek posters are all over town!"

"It was during a war, darlings," explains Mama. "I forget which one precisely. Your father had difficulty getting help at that time or he never would have hired me, even to make costumes, as inexperienced as I was."

"So I'm standing there fuddled from breathing Miss Hinchcliff's Midnight Marzipan perfume and cross-eyed with figuring. I couldn't climb into the pit myself because I was doing twenty jobs already. I couldn't ask Horst the Cat Man because he was a vegetarian to begin with, and his dentures would disintegrate the first time he hit a chicken neck anyhow. Suddenly your mama pops up for all the world like she was offering me sherry and biscuits. 'I'll do it, Mr. Binewski,' she says, and I just about sent a present to my laundryman."

Mama smiled sweetly into her sewing and nodded. "I was anxious to prove myself useful to the show. I'd been with Binewski's Fabulon only two weeks at the time and I felt very keenly that I was on trial."

"So I says," interrupts Papa, " 'But, miss, what about your teeth?' Meaning she might break 'em or chip 'em, and she smiles wide, just like she's smiling now, and says, 'They're sharp enough, I think!' "

We looked at Mama and her teeth were white and straight, but of course by that time they were all false.

"I looked at her delicate little jaw and I just groaned. 'No,' I says, 'I couldn't ask you to . . .' but it did flash into my mind that a blonde and lovely geek with legs—I mean your mama has what we refer to in the trade as LEGS—would do the business no real harm. I'd never heard of a girl geek before and the poster possibilities were glorious. Then I thought again, No . . . she couldn't . . ."

"What your papa didn't know was that I'd watched the geek several times and of course I'd often helped Minna, our cook at home, when she slaughtered a fowl for the table. I had him. He had no choice but to give me a try."

"Oh, but I was scared spitless when her first show came up that afternoon! Scared she'd be disgusted and go home to Boston. Scared she'd flub the deal and have the crowd screaming for their money back. Scared she'd get hurt . . . A chicken could scratch her or peck an eye out quick as a blink."

"I was quite nervous myself," nodded Mama.

"The crowd was good. A hot Saturday that was, and the Fourth of July was the Sunday. I was running like a geeked bird the whole day myself, and just had time to duck behind the pit for one second before I stood up front to lead in the mugs. There she was like a butterfly . . ."

"I wore tatters really, white because it shows the blood so well even in the dark of the pit."

"But such artful tatters! Such low-necked, slit-to-the-thigh, silky tatters! So I took a deep breath and went out to talk 'em in. And in they went. A lot of soldiers in the crowd. I was still selling tickets when the cheers and whistles started inside and the whooping and stomping on those old wood bleachers drew even more people. I finally grabbed a popcorn kid to sell tickets and went inside to see for myself."

Papa grinned at Mama and twiddled his mustache.

"I'll never forget," he chuckled.

"I couldn't growl, you see, or snarl convincingly So I sang," explained Mama.

"Happy little German songs! In a high, thin voice!"

"Franz Schubert, my dears."

"She fluttered around like a dainty bird, and when she caught those ugly squawking hens you couldn't believe she'd actually do anything. When she went right ahead and geeked 'em that whole larruping crowd went bonzo wild. There never was such a snap and twist of the wrist, such a vampire flick of the jaws over a neck or such a champagne approach to the blood. She'd shake her star-white hair and the bitten-off chicken head would skew off into the corner while she dug her rosy little fingernails in and lifted the flopping, jittering carcass like a golden goblet, and sipped! Absolutely sipped at the wriggling guts! She was magnificent, a princess, a Cleopatra, an elfin queen! That was your mama in the geek pit.

"People swarmed her act. We built more bleachers, moved her into the biggest top we had, eleven hundred capacity, and it was always jammed."

"It was fun." Lil nodded. "But I felt that it wasn't my true metier."

"Yeah." Papa would half frown, looking down at his hands, quieted suddenly.

Feeling the story mood evaporate, one of us children would coax, "What made you quit, Mama?"

She would sigh and look up from under her spun-glass eyebrows at Papa and then turn to where we were huddled on the floor in a heap and say softly, "I had always dreamed of flying. The Antifermos, the Italian trapeze clan, joined the show in Abilene and I begged them to teach me." Then she wasn't talking to us anymore but to Papa. "And, Al, you know you would never have got up the nerve to ask for my hand if I hadn't fallen and got so bunged up. Where would we be now if I hadn't?"

Papa nodded, "Yes, yes, and I made you walk again just fine, didn't I?" But his face went flat and smileless and his eyes went to the poster on the sliding door to their bedroom. It was old silvered paper, expensive, with the lone lush figure of Mama in spangles and smile, high-stepping with arms thrown up so her fingers, in red elbow-length gloves, touched the starry letters arching "CRYSTAL LIL" above her.

My father's name was Aloysius Binewski. He was raised in a traveling carnival owned by his father and called "Binewski's Fabulon." Papa was twenty-four years old when Grandpa died and the carnival fell into his hands. Al carefully bolted the silver urn containing his father's ashes to the hood of the generator truck that powered the midway. The old man had wandered with the show for so long that his dust would have been miserable left behind in some stationary vault.

Times were hard and, through no fault of young Al's, business began to decline. Five years after Grandpa died, the once flourishing carnival was fading.

The show was burdened with an aging lion that repeatedly broke expensive dentures by gnawing the bars of his cage; demands for cost-of living increases from the fat lady, whose food supply was written into her contract; and the midnight defection of an entire family of animal eroticists, taking their donkey, goat, and Great Dane with them.

The fat lady eventually jumped ship to become a model for a magazine called Chubby Chaser. My father was left with a cut-rate, diesel-fueled fire-eater and the prospect of a very long stretch in a trailer park outside of Fort Lauderdale.

Al was a standard-issue Yankee, set on self-determination and independence, but in that crisis his core of genius revealed itself. He decided to breed his own freak show.

My mother, Lillian Hinchcliff, was a water-cool aristocrat from the fastidious side of Boston's Beacon Hill, who had abandoned her heritage and joined the carnival to become an aerialist. Nineteen is late to learn to fly and Lillian fell, smashing her elegant nose and her collarbones. She lost her nerve but not her lust for sawdust and honky-tonk lights. It was this passion that made her an eager partner in Al's scheme. She was willing to chip in on any effort to renew public interest in the show. Then, too, the idea of inherited security was ingrained from her childhood. As she often said, "What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?"

The resourceful pair began experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes. My mother developed a complex dependency on various drugs during this process, but she didn't mind. Relying on Papa's ingenuity to keep her supplied, Lily seemed to view her addiction as a minor by-product of their creative collaboration.

Their firstborn was my brother Arturo, usually known as Aqua Boy. His hands and feet were in the form of flippers that sprouted directly from his torso without intervening arms or legs. He was taught to swim in infancy and was displayed nude in a big clear-sided tank like an aquarium. His favorite trick at the ages of three and four was to put his face close to the glass, bulging his eyes out at the audience, opening and closing his mouth like a river bass, and then to turn his back and paddle off, revealing the turd trailing from his muscular little buttocks. Al and Lil laughed about it later, but at the time it caused them great consternation as well as the nuisance of sterilizing the tank more often than usual. As the years passed, Arty donned trunks and became more sophisticated, but it's been said, with some truth, that his attitude never really changed.

My sisters, Electra and Iphigenia, were born when Arturo was two years old and starting to haul in crowds. The girls were Siamese twins with perfect upper bodies joined at the waist and sharing one set of hips and legs. They usually sat and walked and slept with their long arms around each other. They were, however, able to face directly forward by allowing the shoulder of one to overlap the other. They were always beautiful, slim, and huge-eyed. They studied the piano and began performing piano duets at an early age. Their compositions for four hands were thought by some to have revolutionized the twelve-tone scale.

I was born three years after my sisters. My father spared no expense in these experiments. My mother had been liberally dosed with cocaine, amphetamines, and arsenic during her ovulation and throughout her pregnancy with me. It was a disappointment when I emerged with such commonplace deformities. My albinism is the regular pink-eyed variety and my hump, though pronounced, is not remarkable in size or shape as humps go. My situation was far too humdrum to be marketable on the same scale as my brother's and sisters'. Still, my parents noted that I had a strong voice and decided I might be an appropriate shill and talker for the business. A bald albino hunchback seemed the right enticement toward the esoteric talents of the rest of the family. The dwarfism, which was very apparent by my third birthday, came as a pleasant surprise to the patient pair and increased my value. From the beginning I slept in the built-in cupboard beneath the sink in the family living van, and had a collection of exotic sunglasses to shield my sensitive eyes.

Despite the expensive radium treatments incorporated in his design, my younger brother, Fortunato, had a close call in being born to apparent normalcy. That drab state so depressed my enterprising parents that they immediately prepared to abandon him on the doorstep of a closed service station as we passed through Green River, Wyoming, late one night. My father had actually parked the van for a quick getaway and had stepped down to help my mother deposit the baby in the cardboard box on some safe part of the pavement. At that precise moment the two-week-old baby stared vaguely at my mother and in a matter of seconds revealed himself as not a failure at all, but in fact my parents' masterwork. It was lucky, so they named him Fortunato. For one reason and another we always called him Chick.

Meet the Author

Katherine Dunn was a novelist and boxing journalist who lived and worked in Oregon. She is the author of three novels: Attic; Truck; and Geek Love, which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Bram Stoker Prize. She died in 2016.

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Geek Love: A Novel 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 97 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the second time I have read this novel. I love the descriptive imagery to help you picture the characters, not only their unique physical appearance but their personalities and demeanors as well. I also very much enjoy the back-and-forth between the past life of Oly's childhood in the Fabulon and present-day in the "real world". Dunn does an extraordinary job of comparing the term "freak"--Chick is the seemingly normal child but treated as the outsider in the family of genetically gifted offspring. Al and Lil create deformities for the allure (enticing patrons to their carnival), while Mary Lick creates deformities for the opposite purpose of causing repulsion (removing women's sex appeal); yet they all seek the human condition of acceptance.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was twisted, comical, and touching all at the same time. The title, Geek Love, threw me off at the start, since I thought the storyline would focus on a romance between several socially awkward and rejected indivduals would take place; however, the term "geek" in this context refers to someone in a circus act who bites the heads off of chickens and is broadly labeled as a freak. Very clever and interesting book that kept me hooked despite the title's orginal reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I can't believe any of the negative reviews. Obviously they were never an escape- starved 13 year old, dreaming of a more extrordanary life...Geek Love was my escape. Wearing a red wig and selling peanuts? I would do it right now. Here's to remembering your dreams....
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love this book. I got so wrapped up in this book,I felt I was living in the "freak show" world. I recommend this book to everyone who isn't afraid of a little perversity. Its about time I read it again,and again,and again.......
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Story line is amazing, the descpriptions are great and the humor is dark like I like it. This book made ,e laugh out loud at times and also literally shocked me to read the next lines at others. I am forever on a journey to find another great read like this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In this book, Katherine Dunn explores the levels of 'freakery' within a traveling Circus kind of setting. The layers of the book that shift from being in the present and the past make this book an amazing read. The dynamics of love, hate, and need as well as prejudice are thoroughly explored. Also, the plays on the senses, desensitizing, and sympathies of the reader are all masterfully manipulated for the best sort of result. If you're looking for something to shock you, at times disgust you, and altogether intrigue you until the very end, I would definitely suggest this work.
Eric_J_Guignard More than 1 year ago
LOVED this book! Cannot say enough good things about it. Fascinating, crazy, funny, and tragic. Beautifully written story - just great all-around.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
due to life, it took me quite a long time to read this book. not like 3 months, more like over a year, haha! i only say this bc after such a long time not picking it up it was exremely easy to dive back into due to an original story line and memorable characters and once i started i couldn't stop. i like the strange reads and this really got strange. at some points i even felt dirty reading it. i felt for oly not feeling like her siblings and almost being "normal" even though she loved her brother in an not so brotherly way. arty made me so angry at some points but isn't that what a good book is supposed to do? if you like classic literature or even use the word literature, don't pick it up. you might get sick reading it. the story line is great going back and forth from past to present. i was only dissappointed with how fast the book ended, i felt a little rushed in the end and i wanted more of what oly was thinking and why she was going to do what she was going to do (hence the 4 stars). a great book that is out there but intriguing. i recommend to anyone who likes not so typical books.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am in love with this book. I love the amazing perspective on normality portrayed be the entire Binewski family, Olympia especially. And I love all of the deep thoughts included in it. One of my favorite areas is where comments upon adult ignorance to how deep a childs problem can be. I just very much enjoyed this fabulous book and belive that anyone who reads it can learn something from it. If not about society, then about themselves.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While the premise revolves around a cast of rather unusual characters, the focus is on the human condition whether you be geek, freak or norm and doing the best in life with what you've been given. I loved how the characters looked down upon 'the norms' as though they were the true freaks. I have read this book several times over the years and the story is just as fresh on the re-read as it was the first time.
ChadHerring More than 1 year ago
I'll admit that I started this book as kind of a joke, poking fun at it silly themes, then all of a sudden BAM! It had me hooked. I'm a slow reader but I read Geek Love in less than a week. Very engrossing and a killer ending.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Delciously twisted. A rare find.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Vividly descriptive and fairly well-written, this book seems to focus on the shock value in exploring the lives of this surrealistic family. Focus is given to cruelty rather than character exploration. Not a 're-read', or a 'recommend'--more of a curiousity. Like American Psycho, having read the book, I will give it away with no regrets.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this is is only great if you have the stomach for the strange and abnormal!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
PharisLW More than 1 year ago
"Geek Love" was recommended to me by someone who's clever, funny and very hip. So of course I had to read it...being 65 means I have fallen off the coolness wagon, and I don't want to go to dinner at 4:30 p.m. quite yet, if you know what I mean. ANYWAY...I was indeed pulled into this book and took it with me to read everywhere I had a sitting wait until it was done. It's very very odd, which I enjoyed...and I just had to find out how it ended. However, it left me emotionally unmoved, for all its familial twists and turns. Is it me, or the book? Or an author who would write these characters, who are such painful creatures, into life? I would recommend it to select people just because I want to discuss it with someone else who's read it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel has shaken me to my core. I strongley suggest reading it . It reminds us as readers what it means to be human. What you see on the surface is sometimes something different entirely underneath.
Marla-Singer More than 1 year ago
Definitely one of the strangest books I have ever read. Very disturbing yet meaningful. A little bit hard to read and keep up with back and forth dialogue, but the imagery will definitely stay in you mind forever.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Stephen King recommended this book as a great summer read. So one day when I wasin BN I did my free hour read in this book while enjoying a StarBucks coffee and just had to buy it. This is by far the sickest weirdest book I have ever read and I have reada few. But I just could not put it down! Its about a husband and wife who r in the carnival busniss sice birth. They deside to have a family of freaks and go about trying to make birth defects in by doing things while pregnant. Then comes the story of these kids and their lives in the carnival and after . If u like sick puppy book u will like this one but fair warning it is not for everyone, I myself love si k puppy books and this was a 5 star winner for me.
jjelizalde More than 1 year ago
This is without a doubt, the most bizarre, extraordinary book I've ever read.  I couldn't put it down, nor could I look away.  This is a very dark book and certainly not for everyone.  I loved it.  It's unlike anything I've ever read.
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