The book is Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, a dazzling oddball masterpiece published 25 years ago. It’s the tale of a circus sideshow called the Binewski Carnival Fabulon that hits hard times. (The titular “geek” refers to a sideshow performer who bites the heads off chickens.) When some of the show’s performers defect, its proprietors—Aloysius and Crystal Lil Binewski—decide to breed their own stable of freaks. Their methods are experimental and more than a little disturbing: They mess with their own DNA and biochemistry using various drugs, insecticides and radioactive materials. It works: Lil gives birth to a boy with flippers for hands and feet, a set of Siamese twins joined at the waist, a hunchback albino dwarf, and a regular-looking baby with telekinetic powers. The Binewskis become freak superheroes, a team of way-weirdos, each with his own skills and powers.
It hardly sounds like mass-market material. But Geek Love has been a perennial best-seller, and its cultural influence has been prodigious. The book has inspired and moved writers, artists and performers to tell their own wild stories. Novelist Karen Russell read Geek Love for the first time when she was 15. She picked it up expecting a story of nerds in love, but found something else: “I felt electrocuted when I read that first page with Crystal Lil and her freak brood. I stood there in the bookstore and my jaw came unhinged. No book I’ve read, before or since, has given me that specific jolt.” Harlan Ellison describes Geek Love as “transformative” and adds: “Not only for its time and its subject matter, but for Katherine Dunn’s attack on the material. She had a stout voice and a clear insight.” Then there’s Jim Rose, who read Geek Love when he was a 30-year-old American touring Europe as a stunt performer with his wife’s family circus. The novel inspired him to launch his own sideshow in the U.S., the Jim Rose Circus, which toured with Lollapalooza and Nine Inch Nails and then on its own through the ’90s. “Geek Love forces a movie into your head while you read it,” Rose says. “You barely even realize you’re reading words.” The only other book he could think of that had the same effect on him? Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (It must be the scene where the lady gets a hatchet in her head.)
Geek Love knocked me out, too. Reading it for the first time at 16, I couldn’t shake it from my brain—I didn’t want to—even as I tore through other novels. It was that glorious age when reading isn’t an escape, it’s your actual life; when everything outside of books becomes suffused with the stories you’re soaking in. I recognized something in Geek Love that I’d always loved in comic books, the idea of a character’s strangeness as the source of her strength. Like the members of the Justice League or the Fantastic Four, the Fabulon freaks are all misfits, each with a singular skill. As a kid, I wanted to have some special power—invisibility, especially; I wanted to be like everyone else, but also, somehow, secretly special and indomitable. In Dungeon Master, an early role-playing video game I’d played on the Atari computers in middle school, you began the game by choosing your characters and their special talents. I loved the idea of selecting magical powers, of building a unique persona from a menu of skills and capabilities. The Binewskis, these incredible freaks, and their demented familial struggles helped me feel better about my own family problems, my own powerlessness. The book inverted the cold adolescent truth that what makes you different curses you.
Then there was Geek Love’s language, which was unlike anything I’d ever encountered—confident, twisted, outrageous. Russell (whose Pulitzer-nominated Swamplandia! owes an obvious debt to Geek Love, and who thanks Dunn in the acknowledgments) describes Dunn’s prose as a “pyrotechnic medium so far removed from our workaday speech that it feels unfair and inaccurate to call that fire-language ‘English.’” An example from Chapter 8: “A carnival in daylight is an unfinished beast, anyway. Rain makes it a ghost. The wheezing music from the empty, motionless rides in a soft, rained-out afternoon midway always hits my chest with a sweet ache. The colored dance of the lights in the seeping air flashed the puddles in the sawdust with an oily glamour.” Or this reflection from Arty, the boy with flippers, in Chapter 9: “We have this advantage, that the norms expect us to be wise. Even a rat’s-ass dwarf got credit for terrible canniness disguised in his foolery. Freaks are like owls, mythed into blinking, bloodless objectivity.”
As a teenager in Berkeley, I thought I was the only person who revered Geek Love. But then I started to meet others who were in on the secret. Years later, when I was an editor at The Paris Review, I wrote to Dunn, and we became occasional pen pals. It wasn’t one of those encounters where you finally meet an idol only to have your admiration dashed. Dunn was as brilliant and warmly hilarious being herself as in print. (Eventually, she let me read a part of the manuscript of her next novel, The Cut Man, which she’s been working on since Geek Love. We ran a selection from the book, in the Review.)
Last year, I saw a paperback copy of Geek Love on the newsstand at an airport. How, I wondered, did travelers feel about this strange, demented masterpiece when they cracked it open on their flights to Waikiki or Warsaw? How does a book as wild and dark as Geek Love endure for decades? And who, really, is this wonder-writer, this magician of worlds?
Katherine Dunn was born in 1945 in Garden City, Kan. Her father left before she was 2, and her mother married “a kind man, a good mechanic from a commercial-fishing family, who’d grown up working on trawlers fishing out of Puget Sound,” she says. Her mother, an artist, was from a farming clan in North Dakota. “She painted and sculpted, designed and built furniture, toys, clothes, etc. She was happy as long as she was making something. When she was happy, the world was a gorgeous place. When she wasn’t making stuff, she wasn’t happy, and she made sure nobody in her vicinity was, either.”
Like Oly—the hunchback albino dwarf who serves as Geek Love’s narrator—Dunn was the second-youngest of five siblings. They were a family of storytellers, her mother and her older brother Spike being especially good at making the family laugh. (“I was worst of all,” Dunn says. “I always came away thinking about how my story could work better.”) In the 1950s, the family moved a lot, chasing work. “Sometimes we followed the crops, doing migrant labor. We did several years of tenant farming in Western Oregon starting in the early ’50s. Later my stepdad managed gas stations in Tigard.” That’s where Dunn went to junior high and high school. At Reed College, she started out as a philosophy major. “I enjoyed it until I ran aground in an aesthetics class. I went in thinking, yeah, art, beauty—my meat, drink and air. But on the first day, I didn’t understand a word that was said in class, so I marched out and changed my major to psychology.”
She began writing her first novel, Attic, while she was still at Reed. During a Christmas-break trip to San Francisco in 1967, Dunn met a guy in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and together they set off traveling far and wide, making stops in Mexico, Boston (where one of her jobs was on the night shift at the Welch’s candy factory in Cambridge, on the Sugar Daddy wrapping line), and Newfoundland. Finishing college now seemed beside the point. The couple headed for Seville, Spain, where she completed Attic. By the time she finished her second novel, Truck, they were living on the Greek island of Karpathos, and Dunn was pregnant. (Attic was published in 1970, Truck in 1971.) Worried about the Vietnam War, they decided not to head home but instead set out for Dublin. “I wanted the child to have an option—an escape clause—in case of some future war where he might be drafted in the U.S.,” Dunn says. “Plus, Irish medicine is good, totally free, and the doctors speak English.” The couple bounced around until Dunn’s son was 7, when they came back to Portland to stay. “We came to Portland because there was a good alternative public school [Metropolitan Learning Center]. Friends who lived there told me about it, and my son loved it. I left his dad and went to work slinging hash in a breakfast diner and working nights tending bar in a biker tavern.”
Dunn recalls the moment when she began writing Geek Love. It was the late ’70s. “My son was about 7 or 8 years old. I’m a big walker. I like to take long walks and I like to have company. And one summer day, I said to my son, ‘C’mon, let’s take a walk. I’m going to go to the Rose Garden.’ He didn’t want to, he wanted to stay and play with his friends. So I went out on my walk and was feeling a little miffed at him. I came to the big experimental Rose Garden in Washington Park in Portland, way on the top of the hill. I sat on the brick steps there and looked out at all these hundreds of varieties of roses. Each of which had been bred very carefully for particular qualities: Different colors, shapes and scents, one color on the inside of the petal, another color on the outside. I started thinking about a topic that had engaged me for a long time, nature vs. nurture, and about the manipulation of genetic heritage. It occurred to me that I could have designed a more obedient son.
“There’s nothing new about that. People have been trying for centuries to manipulate genes, enhance certain traits, and achieve racial purity, even in humans. And of course I thought of the Nazis and their efforts toward Aryan magnificence. And I thought that was actually kind of boring, that search for perfection. It would be more interesting to go in another direction entirely, to search for something other than the perceived symmetrical, common notion of perfection. Which got me thinking about freaks and mutations that were not considered desirable. That’s basically how it began. I went home feeling quite chipper and wrote a section of the book, which persists pretty much intact.” (Al Binewski tells his brood a similar story of inspiration at the Rose Garden, when asked by his children, “Tell us how you thought of us.”)
Dunn worked on the book for more than a decade. She also worked as a waitress, a bartender and a house painter. In 1981, she started writing about boxing for Willamette Week. (A collection of her boxing essays, One Ring Circus, was published in 2009.) Dunn also wrote an advice column, called “The Slice,” for WW and did some radio and local TV commercial voice-over work. (Her voice is a scotch-and-cigarette alto that resonates warmly.) Occasionally she’d tell friends about her work in progress, Geek Love. “They would groan and say, ‘For Christ sake, Dunn, no one’s going to publish that, no one’s going to want to read that kind of crap.’ I figured, well, that’s probably true.”
Dunn cried when she finished the book. “It was sad and terrible,” she says. “I mourned for a long time. I loved those people and their world. I lived there with them for a long time. But the end of the book destroyed any possibility of returning.”
Literary agent Richard Pine had heard of Dunn from other writers he represented in the Pacific Northwest. When he finally got the manuscript, he was dazzled: “I thought it was one of the most brilliant things I’d ever read, and also one of the hardest books to sell that I’d ever take on.” But after a few months of rejection, Pine had a handful of publishers vying for the rights.
Everyone who worked on Geek Love became a titan of the book industry. Its publisher, Sonny Mehta, had recently moved from London to head Knopf in New York. Pine sent him the manuscript. “I was watched with great curiosity in the house, I suspect, because everybody was kind of curious about my taste,” says Mehta, who eventually became chairman and editor-in-chief at Knopf Doubleday. On a Friday he asked a young editor, Terry Adams, to read the manuscript over the weekend. “I came in Monday morning and went straight to Sonny’s office,” says Adams, now publisher of paperback and digital at Little, Brown and Company. “I was just overwhelmed by the manuscript. I said, ‘You have to buy this. You have to buy this.’” Geek Love was Mehta’s first acquisition for Knopf. “I thought it was a hugely ambitious, very daring book,” Mehta says. “I found it chilling, I found it moving, sometimes very funny, but I was taken by the sheer in-your-faceness of the whole thing. I thought it was brilliant.”
Geek Love was published on March 11, 1989. The print run was 20,000 copies, a standard run for a book of literary fiction written by an author who hadn’t published in more than 15 years. The cover, sporting an angular, handmade font against show-stopping neon orange, was designed by a relatively unknown junior designer, Chip Kidd. “Designing that cover was a personal breakthrough for me,” says Kidd, now arguably the most prolific, best-known book-cover designer of all time. “It was the first book jacket I did that had an original visual language. That was wholly inspired by Dunn’s own original language and her brilliant storytelling. I drew the mutant E’s to represent the development of the various freaks in the story.” (The E’s weren’t the only freaks on the book jacket. The Knopf logo of a Russian wolfhound had been around since 1915. In homage to the Binewskis, Kidd gave the dog a fifth leg.)
“I was a young, smart-assed design-brat,” Kidd says. “What made it fun was that nobody caught the extra leg until the book was out and on the shelves.”
Geek Love was reviewed widely, and most of the notices were raves. It was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction in 1989, up against E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and John Casey’s Spartina. (Spartina won.) Dunn was surprised by the book’s reception. She’d spent nearly 10 years working on the story, far from the publishing world. “All the time I was working on Geek Love, it was like my own private autism,” she says. Dunn traveled from Portland to New York for the awards dinner and stayed with Mehta. “I hate to tell you this,” she says, “but I did not know what the National Book Award was when I got the call.” (Adams remembers Dunn bringing a copy of each nominee’s novel to the awards dinner to be autographed.)
Pine recalls how Geek Love stood out against popular literary fiction of the time: “Fiction was dominated by realism. Saul Bellow, Philip Roth in the middle of his career, Bernard Malamud, John Updike. You didn’t have people removing digits, people with magical powers or extra limbs. Knopf was the bastion of this realistic fiction, so for Geek Love to be Sonny’s first book—it’s not what was deemed appropriate or commercial. It was a big deal.”
Geek Love touched a nerve at the beginning of the ’90s, as grunge rock poured from the Pacific Northwest and independent movies like Reservoir Dogs (1992), Clerks (1994), Kids (1995) and Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) flourished. In the same way that punk and grunge felt real—not like slick stadium rock, big-budget studio movies, hokey scripted TV—Geek Love achieved a fresh kind of authenticity. The Binewskis felt real, even as their lives and their story were fantastical. There was something about the idea of a freak show, an entertainment that hadn’t thrived in American culture for generations, which felt just right in the early ’90s.
Jim Rose (of the Jim Rose Circus) remembers his first show: “It sold out. Kurt Cobain was in the audience. Pearl Jam was in the audience. Katherine Dunn set the table for this whole modern freak-show vibe. Freak shows used to exclusively be cons that were perpetrated on the midway of state fairs or carnivals, and they always let you down, they always cheated you. After Geek Love inspired me to put together a show that didn’t have the con as the focus but, rather, art as the focus, it took off. All of a sudden, I was allowed to play in theaters. I didn’t have to be on some midway. All of a sudden, I was playing to thousands of people a night. Katherine Dunn turned that dusty con on a midway into art. And I just basically did a live version inspired by that book.”
Twenty-five years after its publication, Geek Love’s popularity is still growing. It made more money in royalties for Dunn last year than in any previous year. All told, the book has sold more than 400,000 copies, 10,000 of them ebooks. Pine says that two weeks don’t go by without an inquiry about the film rights. Harry Anderson’s option eventually lapsed. (Anderson was a spokesperson for Apple Computer at the time; he showed up one day on Dunn’s doorstep in Portland and gave her a gift, her first Mac, then showed her how to use it.) Henry Selick, director of the animated films The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and Coraline, asked Dunn about making an animated version of Geek Love. “When you’re doing films, you think everything is possible. I talked to Tim Burton about producing it as an animated film,” Selick says, “but honoring the book, hardcore.” Warner Bros. acquired an option for Burton but never developed the film. Selick feels he let Dunn down, but he’s also certain that a movie version true to Dunn’s book would have been impossible in the last 20 years. He thinks it might be possible now, thanks to technology and more diverse content on screens, and as we talk, he says our conversation is getting his mind racing again about the possibility of realizing Geek Love as a film. “It remains one of my favorite books of all time, with the most powerful, amazing characters, and a topsy-turvy view of what’s normal, and what’s not, which is something that interests me.”
In the late ’90s, Warner Bros. executives had a meeting with Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) about future projects, and somehow Geek Love came up. The siblings were interested in developing the property, so Warner Bros. bought the film rights indefinitely. Lana remembers her first time reading the book: She stayed up all night and then woke up early to get back to it, “pausing only to put on a pot of coffee, which I promptly forgot until I smelled it burned to a crisp,” she says. “It is a diabolically insightful and exquisitely rendered examination of the transformational power and pathology of familial love.” Will they turn Geek Love into a movie any time soon? “We do have a dream of adapting it; we would love to work with Tim Burton. Our fantasy is to write and produce the script and have him direct it.”
Katherine Dunn is not like regular people. In 2009, she
was carrying a bag of groceries near Northwest 21st Avenue and Glisan
Street when a woman tried to yank her purse off her shoulder. The force
spun the then-64-year-old writer around, and the attacker, a strung-out
25-year-old with a record, kicked her shin and smacked her face. Dunn,
who had trained for a decade at a Portland boxing club, punched the
woman and held on to her until the police showed up. Dunn was
disappointed not to have bloodied her attacker’s nose, but she didn’t
have use of her left, as it was tied up with the purse. When I asked her
what it had been like to be known as the author of Geek Love for
these 25 years, Dunn said: “In some ways it’s like being the mom of
someone who’s notorious in an odd but humorous way. Say, a modern Le
Pétomane, the French flatulist. Every time your kid tweets cranky or
slips through security to snatch a microphone and demonstrate the fine
art of flatulence, somebody will phone to ask what he was like as a
child, did you neglect, abuse, or spoil him, and isn’t it true that his
great talent is just acute lactose intolerance?”
There was no way Dunn could have anticipated the 25 years of attention Geek Love has attracted, nor the pressure on her to finish her next book. (“I can’t tell you how patiently I’m waiting for the next one,” Sonny Mehta says. “I’m just a great fan.”) Geek Love took more than 10 years to write, and its creation was passionate and intense. Writing a cult classic, like making a viral video, is not something you set out to do. She poured herself into the book. “When you become immersed in a project like this, you really lose all perspective,” Dunn says. “By the time I finished the book, I was blood-bound to these people. They were my family. I could no more imagine someone disliking them or being offended by them than I could fly.”
With that, I realized, Dunn had captured exactly how I’d felt—and still feel—about the Binewskis. They weren’t just characters I read about; they were the most indelible people I’d ever met.
“Oh good,” she replied. “But you are a weirdo, kid.”
This story first appeared on wired.com and is reprinted with its permission.
Caitlin Roper is a senior editor at Wired magazine. She edits stories on all kinds of subjects, from the history of the movie trailer to the healing powers of horseshoe-crab blood. She’s especially interested in animation, crime, psychology and people obsessed by their pursuits—the weirder, the better. Roper has worked in film and has contributed stories to New York magazine, The Moth and the Los Angeles Times. Before joining Wired, she was managing editor of The Paris Review. She lives in San Francisco.