I bought this book years ago (over 10 at the very least), when I was seriously into horror. The premise was enough to interest me (a husband and wife, looking to preserve their traveling carnival, breed their own freaks by having the wife take a variety of poisons during her pregnancies), and I figured since it was a National Book Award nominee, I could show off how literate I was by reading something I would be reading anyway. Or something like that. I never did get around to reading it, but I’ve held on to the book for a long time. As mentioned several times before, I’m still a fan of horror, when it’s “done right,” and I thought, this book being a National Book Award nominee, this would be one of those horror novels. When it was selected for my wife’s book club, I figured it was time for me to find out.
One definition of perverse is “persistent or obstinate in what is wrong,” and I think that best describes Geek Love, or better yet, that of the main character, Arturo Binewski. He is the armless, legless wonder of the family, dubbed “Aqua Boy” for the carnival, and he slowly, methodically takes over the family during the course of the story. He is a willful character with no remorse, no regrets, and no affections save for himself. In short, he is a textbook sociopath. I have to give the author credit in the way that she draws the character; it’s like she had some psychology textbook right at hand as she developed him. Most of the other characters are just there as filler, and they aren’t nearly as developed as Arturo, but they all serve as some important way to show how deranged Arturo is. Elly and Iphy, the conjoined twins, are there as separate personalities to make them part of the Binewski family, but their real purpose is to highlight how far Arturo is willing to go for revenge and punishment. Thankfully, that doesn’t come to light until the end of the book; if it came any sooner, I imagine most people would put the book down in disgust.
The book is complex, with strange asides that seem to have nothing to do with the main plot, but every character and every event in the story is important. Ms. Dunn is very efficient that way, so be forewarned to pay attention to everything and try not to forget all the things that happen in the story. One might be tempted to skim over portions of the novel (most likely when the author gets into her “flowing prose” style), but you should resist that temptation. If a character sees any page time in this book, rest assured that you will see him or her again.
Geek Love is a twisted commentary on the nuclear family in the modern day, made much more prominent by the ways that the “nuclear” has affected the development of the characters. This point is made especially well by the second story, told in modern times and narrated by Oly, the albino hunchback dwarf of the family all grown up. This subplot revolves around Oly’s daughter wishing to have her vestigial tail removed, and Oly trying to convince her that it makes her unique and special. In fact, this is a theme that comes up throughout the novel. Oly is asked several times if she’s ever wanted to be normal, and she is always surprised by the question. To her, her deformities, and those of all her family members, are what makes her a part of the family. To change her state is to change who she is, and what her family means to her. It’s quite an achievement on the author’s part that she was able to capture that theme so well, and so timelessly. The novel was published in 1989, and it’s still relevant 20 years later.
So, the question remains: Was this book horror “done right”? Well, simply put, this was almost the first book that I ever put down, never to finish, simply because the content offended me. I had real issues with the character of Arturo, and the lengths to which he would go to satisfy his curiosity and his ego. It begs comparisons to the experiments that Nazi doctors performed on the interred at concentration camps, which I imagine was very intentional on the author’s part. It’s disturbing, foul, haunting, and profane, and it really sums up how a person should feel after reading a horror novel. On the other hand, I would have serious reservations recommending this book to anyone. It’s well written and raises some interesting points, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Charlie Huston’s stuff is brutal, true, but I would have fewer reservations recommending his work over this. Charlie Huston is visceral and intense, but Geek Love is offensive and emotionally draining in its portrayal of cruelty and misguided devotion. As much as I thought about the book and will continue to think about it, I will likely never read this book again. It’s simply too much for me to process more than once.