A common trope in science fiction and fantasy is the depiction of a group of diverse individuals, each of which have a specific “power.” From the X-Men to The Incredibles, the fantastic applications of these powers are always explored right alongside the notion of alienation and isolation from the rest of mainstream society. Mutants and freaks in this way serve as a sort of meta-analog for genre fiction itself. Each piece of science fiction or fantasy has a concept, which is kind of like the book’s “power.” Katherine Dunn’s 1989 novel Geek Love depicts a family of carnival freaks, each of whom have their own specific mutation. However, these mutations aren’t bestowed upon the freaks by accident. Instead, the Binewski parents themselves are directly responsible for their brood of circus freaks and their special gifts.
Oly Binewski, an albino, midget hunchback, narrates Geek Love. In contrast to her various siblings and fellow circus performers, Oly’s “gift” isn’t as pronounced or sensational, giving her a sort of double isolation among the freaks. The voice of the narrator isn’t pitiful though, a fine line which Dunn manages to walk expertly. Oly spins the tale in various different temporal locations throughout her life, with a big chunk of the narrative demonstrating how the family Binewski came to be and what the day-to-day machinations were like in their traveling show.
It’s revealed almost immediately that Oly’s mother and Father, Al and Lily, intentionally attempted to create a family of mutants. By ingesting various chemicals, Lily hoped that each new pregnancy would yield an even more fantastic mutation than the last. Oly’s brother Arturo (Arty) has flippers and is known as the Aquaboy. Her sisters, Iphy and Elly are joined Siamese twins. Though revealed early in the novel, but later chronologically, Oly eventually gives birth to a girl named Miranda who appears completely normal except for a small tail, a tail which Oly insisted not be removed by the docotors.
For the most part, the majority of these mutations are conceivable in the real world; giving the book a certain touch of magical realism or quirky fantasy, but perhaps not totally out-there science fiction. That is, until the introduction and explanation of the specific mutation of the infant Fortuna, nicknamed Chick. Oly recounts the harrowing tale of how Chick is almost left on a doorstep by Al and Lily because outwardly, Chick doesn’t have a single mutation. Al and Lily feel as though they’ve failed, as every single living child contributes in some way to their traveling show. A “norm” does them no good, and so they set to abandon the helpless little Chick.
That is until he suddenly demonstrates the power of telekinesis. Chick can move all sorts of objects with his mind, making him a dangerous and formidable infant, but in the eyes of his parents, eventually a great asset to the traveling freak show. As Oly outlines, much of Chick’s powers were never put to any sort of ethical uses. Instead, Chick is employed as a telekinetic pickpocket early in his childhood, a plan that eventually backfires. Chick’s presence in the narrative is an interesting one insofar as he is a magical event inside of an already speculative universe. Though Dunn doesn’t draw a great deal of attention to her various colorful, absurd, or grotesque subjects, there is something jarring about the descriptions of the pick-pocked dollar bills crawling through crowds only to find their way to a secret pouch connected to Al’s garter. Even the initial reveal of Chick’s mutation is handled deftly. At first, I almost thought the small baby had some kind of super strength, but when its made clear he has more supernatural science fiction powers, a tone subtly shifts in the novel that I can only describe as frightening.
I’ll not reveal what eventually happens to the various characters, mostly because the arcs of this novel are sprawling and numerous. Having the book be framed by a future in which Oly is an adult and has a child already puts the reader on edge mostly because Miranda is seemingly unaware that Oly is her mother. Much has been said about how this book not only futzes with the fabric of speculative fiction, but also throws traditional family roles into strange lights. Author Karen Russell (who kicked off Gerne in the Mainstream) has credited Geek Love as the inspiration for Swamplandia! but draws a distinction in this PBS interview by pointing out Geek Love really changes the definition of what family relationships end up being like in an extreme circumstance. The Binewski parents love their children of course, but ultimately the children have a utilitarian purpose.
Geek Love is not the easiest book to read in the world, because at almost every turn it is extremely dark. This is not to say the prose is cumbersome or complex. In fact, in terms of the style alone, this is one of the greatest and most unique novels of the past fifty years. I feel as though I have read many contemporary works of magical realism or mild speculative fiction that are reminiscent of Geek Love, but when you read this novel, it feels like the real deal. Even if one hasn’t read it, or is totally unaware of it, there’s something familiar about this story that elevates it from a quirky book with a high concept, to standard of genre blending and narrative style that has yet to be beat. Dunn certainly has her influences too though, as echoes of Vonnegut can be felt in certain scenes of the present day in which we learn Oly is a science fiction author of sorts who now records her stories as radio dramas.
If you’re a reader who enjoys rich and lush prose, in which the author and narrator’s voices are intertwined with a highly textured and disturbing fictional landscape, then you’ll love this novel. But it also appeals to other sensibilities, because freak shows are real after all. And most of us, even if we wouldn’t admit it, wouldn’t be able to look away.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.