Not for the squeamish or faint of heart, this brilliantly daring novel is shocking and delightful. Christina Moore's vibrant narration conspires with Katherine Dunn's evocative, energetic prose to shock us at seeing something of ourselves in these exotic characters.
©1998 Katherine Dunn; (P)1999 Recorded Books
I admit I am biased about this book. I read it as a teenager and it was one of my formative experiences. However, I would not be so biased if it were not genuinely great. This is a novel which plumbs parts of human experience that are not usually dealt with so bluntly. For example, it has things to say about body anxieties that are almost unheard today. And it has one of the best portrayals of the concept of the horror of the ordinary that I have ever seen. It is what I point to when I want to explain that concept to people who have never felt it.
Let me put it this way, I have read this book at least five times in the last five years. Then I downloaded this audiobook, and I have listened to it twice in the last two weeks. It is just that good.
If you are not in the mainstream, if you are a freak, you owe yourself this book. Really.
This was a captivating book. I hated to arrive at work or at home because I would have to stop listening and get on with real life. The characters in this book were so abnormal, but they became a real family as time went on. Just when I thought it couldn't get any more strange, something else would happen. It was a little disconcerting at the very beginning, but once I got into it and really listened to the characters, not just thinking about how insane it was to manufacture a freak show, I enjoyed the book and the relationships very much. I do recommend this book.
Love a great book that stays with you long after you've finished it.
Excellent. There is more here than words, the author set the stage for deep searching into oneself, who really are the geeks? The choices of the parents in this novel and the results there of are so unconventional it is shocking, but written so well you find yourself siding with the characters. I enjoyed every word spoken by this terrific narrator, one of the best, she is a marvel!
Bring on Geek II!
i thought this book was brilliant, terrible, awfully, at times painfully brilliant. Ms. Moore has a lovely voice and tells the story beautifully.
Addicted to audiobooks & podcasts. 5 Stars=I Loved It, 4 Stars=Enjoyed it Thoroughly, 3=Kinda Good, 2=Bad/Boring, 1=Complete Waste of Credit
I just finished listening to this book and am missing it already - I loved the ending but I didn't want it to end! If you are squeamish or averse to foul language then prepare to be horrified - if you are a bit twisted and used to graphic detail then prepare to be horrified as well (in the best way possible!) The story is intricate and chock full of sub-plots that move along at a perfect pace with the overall plot line. The narrator does a great job of relating the personalities and feelings of the characters, although the male voices are a bit off (however it's hard to fault a female narrator for not being able to pull off deep male voices with great success). Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will definitely be checking out other titles by this author.
What a great job. There's a dash of Holly Hunter here and a voice that never gets old, either in its reading of our main character or its performances of others.
Review of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love
For much of this weird and generally wonderful novel, I got the central conflict wrong. I thought this was – as the title and its ‘freak show’ setting imply – about accepting difference. I thought it was a provocative but ultimately conventional claim, that there’s a goodness and decency in accepting the other.
As it turns out, though, this novel more or less takes for granted that convention. Everyone accepts a fundamental notion of difference, at least everyone who comes into its orbit. The more troubling question turns out to be how one feels about physicality, about the body and flesh. And that turns out to be a more compelling conflict than a trite one between difference and ‘normalcy.’
I like almost all of this, but my favorite part is the magnificent opening sequence. We learn, seamlessly, that Al and Lil, have made the freak show, “the fabulon,” their family, and vice-versa. When hard times hit, they made the calculated decision to breed a family of midway acts. Lillian took all sorts of drugs and radioactive materials in order to alter her children, and she gives birth, in succession, to Artie the Aquaboy, a pair of conjoined twins, our narrator, Ollie, who’s an albino dwarf, and Chick, the telekinetic.
The heart of that opening sequence, though, is the great love and acceptance within the family. Al calls the children his “dreamlets,” and, despite the horror under the notion that the parents have induced birth defects, it’s a celebration of a great and physical love. (The prose description of Lillian as a young circus geek is worthy of a frame. Against my habit, I went back and re-read it just because it’s so lyrical.) These aren’t characters who are concerned about being ‘different.’ They are defiant in celebrating the wonder that they embody.
That ethos – or, if you prefer, that philosophy or that way of being – casts itself over the novel through that opening scene and through Ollie’s embrace of it. Like most of her siblings, she has inherited her father’s deep sense of wonder at the potential in human beings. It meets its opposite from two extremes.
On the one hand, Artie slowly develops a theory that ‘freakishness’ – particularly of his variety – is superior to the alternatives. His difference, his limbless aquatic muscularity, is the only kind that matters. Others should aspire to be like him. While the whole family looks down on “norms” who have no particular unusual physical characteristics, he takes it to an extreme. He cultivates insecurity in the people who come to him. He manipulates them into seeing their physical selves as a source of their unhappiness. (And, eventually, he turns to their mental selves as well.) He becomes a prophet of surgery against self. He supplants Al as head of the show, but he also supplants his philosophy of wonder with a philosophy of anti-body, of anti-flesh.
I’d spoil things to say how all that wraps up, but Artie’s philosophy meets its cousin in the person of Miss Lick, a wealthy heiress who – years later as part of a second plot woven (with some awkwardness) into the flashback portions – makes a fetish of removing or altering the birth ‘defects’ of others. She acts in the spirit of a condescending charity, but she’s motivated by a desire to make or remake others. Less like Al – who wanted to awaken dreams – and more like Artie, who wanted to impose a perverse sameness on the world, she pushes against possibility and toward the pre-fab quality of the frozen-dinner world in which she was raised as queen.
It’s only toward the end that that fundamental opposition comes into focus. Ollie, in her basic decency, loves Artie as much as he expects to be loved. She’s also drawn to Miss Lick even though she seeks her out to try to protect her daughter Miranda from her surgical predations. Even that opposition is complicated, though. Simple acceptance – as I’m tempted to characterize Al and Ollie’s perspective – does pale before Artie and Miss Lick’s calls for self-improvement. Ollie has achieved little in life, largely because she has so easily accepted the role everyone has cast for her. Artie and Miss Lick have a shared point; difference doesn’t just happen. Even the family is the product of a planned drug and radiation method. We are individual expressions of the species, but we are also the result of decisions we and others have made. It’s a complicated cycle, and there’s no clear resolution to it.
Throughout it all, the writing here shines, but I did get frustrated by some of the organization. On a page by page basis, this is a master class. More broadly, though, I wanted to see a more thoughtful braiding of the two narrative threads. We get a glimpse of the “now” of Miss Lick as soon as the second section of the novel, but we often go long stretches without returning to it. At a narrative level, the “now” passages get set up to resolve the entire story, but then they become so few and far between that they eventually fizzle. When we return to them at the end, they feel artificial. The real energy is all in the past, and it becomes hard to accept it as the end. There’s simply much less at stake in the conflict with Miss Lick; we haven’t gotten close enough to it for it to bear the weight of the conclusion.
In a similar vein, as wonderful a voice as Ollie’s is, she isn’t good at narrating change. She describes memorably and beautifully, but Dunn comes increasingly to depend on the notes of a reporter to fill in the changes in the story. It’s as if Ollie is made for us to marvel at, as if she is complete in herself. She simply doesn’t work as well at describing change.
If I squint, I can see this narrative misshapenness as reflecting the misshapenness of its characters. These are bodies that don’t fit together all that well, so why shouldn’t their story come to us in a form that rejects the organic shape of the conventional novel?
In the end, though, as much as I love the ideas and language here, that seems a too generous reaction, and I can’t quite overlook the structural issues. The arrogant inner editor in me kept wishing I could have helped put together a final draft, if I couldn’t have urged her to move a few sections around, limit some of the flashback, and expand some of the now.
I still think of this as a “five-star” novel, and I think parts of it will stick with me a long time. It’s so close to being even stronger, though, that I think I’ll recall its flaws for a good while, too. And maybe that really is part of the point.
Yes, because I like things with a kind of sinister, dark edge. This book is not for the squeemish- it goes through just about every social taboo that families try to avoid.
This book explores the darker side of human nature. The amazing ability for a father to exploit his children in a most merciless manner. He would be the craziest stage parent ever and would definitely have his own reality television show today.
I tried to see the situations through the mothers eyes. She allowed everyone around her to exploit or abuse her children but at the same time saw herself as a loving and protective mother.
I have been waiting for 3 years to get this book on Audible! I'm not into books about the circus or the people in them but this isn't a "circus" book. (If you've read "Water for Elephants" I consider that a book about the circus and not terribly interesting.) This book is about being human and how we treat others when all we see is the outward appearance and don't consider the person on the inside. Katherine Dunn has created a menagerie of characters that defy your imagination. They are so real yet your mind will shutter at the thought of their actual existence. I can't recommend this book enough to everyone who loves literature, great literature. I had my book group read this and they couldn't believe how much they loved it and how much we continue to bring it up year after year. If you ever saw or know about the Showtime series "Carnival," I recommend that as a tame yet wonderful companion. The only negative thing I have to say is that Katherine Dunn doesn't have a book for you to read after this!
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