Geek Love

by Katherine Dunn

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Geek Love is narrated by Olympia, one of five children who grow up in a traveling carnival that their parents own. In the fantastic novel, “geek” refers to a particular job in a carnival: a person who performs with decapitated chickens. Before the children were born, the woman who would become their mother, Lillian Hinchcliff, had assumed this position in the circus she recently joined. As the geek is always male, having a young attractive female doing such a grotesque activity attracted new spectators. In addition, the circus owner, Aloysius Binewski, was bowled over by the woman’s brave, risk-taking attitude and performance skills; he claimed he fell in love the first time she stepped into the ring. Lillian was born into an elite Boston family, but Aloysius had long lived the carnival life and had to take charge upon his father’s death. Several of the acts left, and their lion was growing old.

He was raised in a traveling carnival owned by his father and called “Binewski’s Fabulon . . . . ” 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 . . . .

Al was a standard 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.

After Lily’s debut, she turned to training as an aerialist, which had been the dream that compelled her to leave home. She and Al were married. Numerous falls took their toll, however, and she sustained numerous injuries. Her way to cope was by taking drugs. Sadly, this habit affected their children, who were afflicted with a variety of birth defects. The couple blithely exploited these disabilities, training their children to relish the spotlight and employing them as “freaks” within the show. Two sisters are Siamese twins. The narrator, along with being albino, has dwarfism and a deformed spine and hunchback.

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 that 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 narrative jumps backward and forward in time, as Olympia divulges the bizarre developments in the family member’s lives. The reader also learns that a tragic incident had torn the family apart, when a deranged gunman had shot and wounded the children as they got out of a van. Lily struggles to reach her children, who are wounded but have scattered to find cover.

Lil came creeping and sniffling on her knees, peering under all the cars and calling to us. She couldn’t talk when she found us. She dragged me out first and I sat quivering on the hot pavement while she reached far under the car for Arty. The hand that she balanced on had smears of bright red, drying fast.

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