18 September, 2009

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

I need to read more, and now that this ordeal of a novel is over, I'm sure I will. I've been reading it since mid-July and it's been hard to get anywhere with it.

John told me he read the first two-thirds and cut his losses. He said, "It's a bad book." I disagree. It's well-composed. It's just that the author's whole intention in writing the book seems to be create something massively disgusting and depressing, and as a result I never wanted to pick it up.

It's probably my fault; I can't remember the last time I read a book without checking ahead to see how it ended. And Geek Love ends horribly. Actually, horrible things are happening from pretty much the first page; if I remember correctly, the book starts with the main character's parents explaining how they intentionally caused their kids to be born with birth defects so they could be sideshows in the family carnival. And this is the most pleasant scene in the novel, since the parents and all their deformed kids are still getting along.

I like carnivals. I like Carnivale. I like Freaks. But the people in Carnivale are regular people, and the people in Freaks are better than regular people. The people in Geek Love all have screwed-up morals, and some of them are downright evil. The most evil character is Arty, who is brilliant and charismatic and has no limbs. He starts a cult based on the idea that having your limbs removed will make you happier. The main character, Oly, is in love with Arty (even though he's evil and her brother). The story is mostly about how Arty destroyed the family, but this is a flashback from the present when Oly is observing the daughter she was forced to give up. Oly's daughter has a tail and Oly will do anything to keep her daughter from getting the tail removed and becoming a "norm," including befriending and murdering the person who's offered to arrange the operation. But it's hard to go undercover when you're an albino hunchback dwarf!

If that sounds like a good book, well, good for you, I guess. Maybe it sounded like a good book to me, at some point--I mean, I like stories about outsiders, the nature of abnormality, and weird love. But I guess I want those stories to have a moral core like Carnivale and Freaks do. Most of the people in Geek Love are the farthest thing from moral, and their motivations are so hard to relate to that it kept me from caring most of the time.

Also, I can't help but be bothered by the way Dunn equates physical disability and difference with evil and repulsiveness. It's all the same to her--luxuriously gross passages about characters' hanging breasts and mildew-infested balls; murder and necrophilia; people who don't have any pigment in their skin or can't walk. Using albinos and people with phocomelia as a metaphor for the darker side of human nature is problematic because disabled people aren't unicorns. It's wrong to write disabled characters for shock value, because real people have to deal with the attitudes you're contributing to.


  1. I know this is an old post, but I wanted to say I am SO GLAD I am not the only person in the world who doesn't like that damn book. I am disabled and I read the book because everyone recommended it to me, including a professor (I am in a PhD program and focus on, among other things, disability studies), but I really hated it. All my friends are all able-bodied and just couldn't understand what problems I had about it, so so glad I'm not alone in seeing its problems.

  2. Hooray! Thank you. I'm glad I'm not alone in finding this to be the most dickish book.