I would argue that a primary theme in this novel is normalcy and what defines it. This theme is showcased in a contradictory way, with an assortment of characters so far removed from any notion of normal that it is obvious they have been created to achieve just that. With dwarfish characters, flippers in the place of hands and feet, conjoined twins, and more, Katherine Dunn could not have made her characters more abnormal at face value. For example, Arturo, the eldest sibling, creates a cult called Arturism, which seems to create a new “normal” by encouraging “normal” people to become abnormal by amputating their own limbs. Within the confines of his cult, Arturo, who has flippers where his hands and feet should be, becomes normal.
Family love is another prominent theme in this novel. The narrator, Olympia, displays unconditional love for members of her family while growing up, before realizing how cruel and manipulative her parents were, having deliberately tried to genetically modify her appearance and that of her siblings.
Linked to this in a perverse way, child abuse in a fictional form is a final theme that I will mention. Olympia’s parents’ intentional use of poison and drugs to ensure that their children would be born abnormal—thereby ensuring the longevity of the “circus freak” business—speaks volumes about the twisted, perverse personalities of Aloysius and Lillian.
The idea of jealousy is an interesting theme throughout Geek Love, a 1989 novel by Katherine Dunn. The novel, written in the style of a memoir by Olympia "Oly" Binewski, tells the story of her family, who work as "carnival freaks." Oly is an albino hunchback dwarf. She works at the carnival with her parents, Aloysius, or "Al," Lillian, or "Lil, Lily, or Crystal Lil," and her numerous siblings, including her older brother Arturo, or "Arty." Her parents deliberately used drugs, poison, and radiation so that their children would be born as "freaks" and their carnival business could continue.
What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?
Arturo "Arty" Binewski, who has no hands or feet, is the eldest living child and is an insecure man. This insecurity manifests itself in controlling, jealous, and psychotic behavior.
I was the only one who knew his dar, bitter meanness and his jagged, rippling jealousy, and his sour yearnings, and still loved him. I also knew how breakable he was. He didn't care if I knew. He didn't care if I loved him. He knew I'd serve him absolutely even if he hurt me.
He is incredibly jealous of his siblings, worried that they are more unusual than he is, and began killing them off when he was only a young child. He is also jealous of the "norms" and begins a cult, the "Arturan Cult," which he establishes in order to do harm to the "norms." This includes sleeping with as many "norm" girls as he possibly can and manipulating and controlling them, just as he does with his family.
Geek Love is an interesting tale of love and acceptance in a strange society. The primary theme involves what "normal" really is, how subjective it is to various groups and people, and then how acceptance corresponds to that normalcy.
In the story, characters with deformities are praised and desired (such as one individual with a small tail who goes on to be a successful fetish stripper) because of the carnival lifestyle lived by the members of the story. The theme of what normal is gets explored through these characters by presenting them as the "accepted" ones in contrast the what most would consider "normal" society. That these individuals are coveted and accepted shows the psychological divide between nature and nurture (learned or inborn behaviors)—and that humans's concept of normalcy is truly a learned, or nurtured, aspect.
The theme of "Geek Love," by Katherine Dunn, is the notion of normalcy in our society and various perceptions of it. The Binewski family is literally a group of carnival freaks, who do everything they can to ensure that their offspring are mutated as well. This includes consuming drugs and chemicals during pregnancy to deliberately cause birth defects. To the family, the child with only a boring hunchback is a terrible disappointment. While the Binewski family sees her as an abnormal outsider, the rest of society considers her as much a freak as the others. The family is extremely isolated and they don't consider it "abnormal" to develop forms of romantic attachment to one another. The eldest Binewski child, Arturo, goes on to lead a cult where the members cut off their own limbs to look more like him. The novel deliberately blurs the line between conceptions of "freak" and "normal" to show that these labels are both relative and fluid.