Geek Love

by Katherine Dunn

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Part of the frisson of Geek Love is that—deep down—it's a family saga with reasonably familiar structure; an atypical, or "non-traditional" family unit gives birth to a savant/monster who captures the imagination of a lost generation. (This plot outline is pretty similar to Temple Gradin's biography, or The Who's rock opera Tommy, to give a few examples.)

Thus, Katherine Dunn is in touch with the family dynamic as an eternal, universal theme in literature. Stories about exceptional children who, along with their parents, overcome drastic medical and social hurdles are a prolific topic in literature. Additionally, the multi-generational family saga—or the studies of interfamilial struggle—with its corresponding themes of tradition and loyalty, is also a fairly universal story.

Geek Love, however, upends the conventions of these traditions and tropes, to say the least. It posits a brutal variation on the disabled-but-plucky prodigy coming-of-age story, in which misfortune or life itself presents seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet harmony somehow prevails. Thematically, these sort of narratives can be seen as "human vs nature," or even "us vs the world." They conclude with reassurances by essentially stating: See? Life isn't so hard, the world isn't too daunting, and people aren't as bad as they seem when a situation is approached with open-mindedness and compassion.

The novel rejects these uplifting statements about empowerment and "testaments to the Human Spirit" (Chicken Soup for the Soul). Dunn, in her presentation of the parents as mad chemists, deliberately working to rewrite their progeny's DNA—rather than nobly martyred by the biological hand that they were dealt—addresses her readership in a way that had the power to shock.

Dunn hails from the Northwest region of the United States (Portland, Oregon), and Geek Love falls under the broad genre of "Northwestern fantasy"—a general regional sensibility that she shares with fantasist Ursula LeGuin, among others—which is fantasy defined and inspired by the climate, culture, and history of this geographic region.

There was a confluence of influences and events that informed Geek Love, as well as the impact that it had on popular culture and social acceptance. Shortly after the novel was published, the Museum of Modern Art presented "High/Low," in which cartoons and "high art" (classical painting, sculpting, etc.) were presented in collision and collaboration, violating implicit social barriers concerning ideas about what "art" was. Thus, the barriers were beginning to be erased between high- and low cultures; it was the beginning of a wider acceptance of tattoo art, body piercing and body scarification, and other social manifestations of a more "freak-positive" climate.

This is part of what promoted a romanticization of diverse marginal members of society (as opposed to the fascination or repulsion that the public was encouraged to feel towards the physically "othered"). The idea of the "sideshow" was a dying entertainment form—long since defunct as our more socially evolved society (but strangely not as tolerant) shifted the schema of where mental or physical otherness should exist in the world. However, this space was rich terrain for Dunn's family saga.

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