October, 2019: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

I wish there was a way of showing the original Knopf logo, a Russian wolfhound that had been around since 1915 modified to a five-legged dog for Geek Love’s publication.

(Book 114) I must mention here that Geek Love was not Katherine Dunn’s debut novel. I was misled by a flavorwire article “Fifty of the Greatest Debut Novels Since 1950” which included it. Geek Love was one of the choices on the Literary Map of the US, the theme we had followed in 2018, when it was narrowly outvoted by To The Bright Edge of the World — so when I saw it on a list of debuts I jumped on it — clearly without checking. Sharon, our hostess for Geek Love advised me of my error a few months ago, which seemed to start a cavalcade of misfortune for the book! You may recall that at our meeting last month Sharon gave a dispensation for those who wanted to attend the meeting without reading the book, because she read it only so far as to get an idea for something to serve. On page five Lil volunteers to be the geek and bite the heads off of chickens. (Chicken Fricassee) Then the meeting was poorly attended and Sharon was dispirited because she usually packs a full house. Below is the email summary.

The Fictional Friends Fabulon pitched their tent tonight at Sandburg Terrace but many of the featured performers were missing. Chris was sewing costumes for the new rodents in her act, Geri had an appointment with Doc P, Susan was photographing the redheads, Mary had a sword stuck in her throat and we fear Linda, the Circassian Beauty was reclaimed, and returned to the Turkish harem from which she had once escaped. The hostess and ticket-taker for the evening was Sharon, the Black Scorpion who hates the Fabulon, but can’t leave it because Melissa has too much dirt on her. She was joined by Melissa, the woman with all the props (and all the dirt), Marcia and Karen the conjoined friends since their days at New Trier, Rosalie, the Hottentot Venus* and Teresa, the Fat Dog Lady, part fat lady, part dog. After the performance, such as it was, the Fabulon members met under the pretense of discussing a book, but pathetically, only two of the troop had read it. Luckily, the hostess, Sharon had great food and wine on hand, one of her three hands. For appetizers, she served delicious crostini with pesto and a choice of salmon, or two kinds of salami. The meal was a lovely Chicken Fricassee (the chickens heads had been bitten off earlier in the evening as part of the entertainment) served over rice with a salad of mixed greens and beets. Two desserts were served, tart lemon bars and a decadent chocolate brownie with nuts. Conversation moved quickly from the book to the political arena and the biggest freak of all took center stage, the chemically radiated orange-skinned being, who having been born without a heart or a conscience, manages to stand up and shake hands with audience members while somehow seeming to crawl on his belly like a weasel. His act involves boasting about his great wisdom though his cranium was long ago scooped out and his brain replace with two rusted AA batteries. In an effort to erase his hobgoblin image from their minds, the Fabulon members quickly set a date for another time to gather. They set the date for Tuesday, November 19th which is coincidentally Auntie Em’s birthday. Some of you will remember that Auntie Em used to grace the stage as the Fiji Mermaid until she modified the act and performed as Lobster Boy.

Having left out any real discussion of the book, I’ll add it here. Rosalie was confused by the tragic ending, as she thought that the author was trying to say that all human beings no matter the deformity were precious so, why did they all die? In response to her comment, I read part of an article in which Katherine Dunn discussed her inspiration for the book being the history-long attempts at genetic engineering, fancy dog breeds, the Aryan race etc and from that I thought one could make the thematic leap that this type of endeavor isn’t going to end well.

After considerable deliberation, I gave the book 4 stars on Goodreads. Yes, it’s hard to read, but the concept is really rather brilliant and the writing is both clever and thoughtful. Below are some of my favorite moments:

The late-in-life description of Lil’s walk as she touches signposts and startled pedestrians as handholds, particularly in contrast to the Lil who said “Gait and carriage, I always tell the children, are such powerful indicators of character.”
The clever additions to such observations as “What’s bred in the bones, when you have bones, comes through.”
The discussion that follows “Can we blame the child for resenting the fantasy of largeness?” specifically “The child screaming for refuge, senses how feeble the shelter the twig hut of grown-up awareness is.”
Oly’s musings of how easily people talk to her, because they think her worst is all out in the open and she’s in no position to judge or find fault.
And I loved the paragraph that summed up the final tragedy— I read a review or two in which a feeling of being short-changed was expressed, but I thought it was perfect.

  • I’d like to apologize to anyone offended by the use of this label. As I am wont to do late in the evening, I Googled a list to help with my summary and this time it was for freak show names to apply to our members. I was so tickled by the sound of Hottentot Venus that it went into the email without further ado. Once in bed, I asked my much-smarter-than-me husband what a Hottentot is. I said I thought it was some kind of soldier. He said he’d have to look it up to be sure. I laughed without restraint at my most recent addition to the long list of unintentional, haphazard, nitwit gaffes. You’ll have to look it up to see what I mean. I’m not sure that it beats the time I summarized the game of Clue by saying that “Ms. Scarlet did it in the library with a candlestick” to a lecture hall of 250 college students, but it’s up there toward the top.