The writer Katherine Dunn died last week at age 70. Anyone who ever felt like an outsider found a friend in Dunn’s 1989 novel Geek Love, a grand spectacle of a comedy, populated by unforgettable characters like a pair of piano-playing conjoined twins, a boy with flippers in lieu of limbs, and an albino hunchback dwarf, all bred by their parents for use in circus acts. As it turned out, the book’s eccentric characters resonated with many readers, and the novel became a bestseller and a National Book Award finalist.
Dunn’s death has inspired an outpouring of tributes calling Geek Love a “weird kid bible” and a “gateway drug of a novel.” It was one of those books that was more than just a novel—it was a movement. Why has this odd book had such enduring appeal? How has it stayed relevant, when our world has changed so rapidly in the quarter of a century since its publication, years that have brought us countless ways of refiguring our identities?
Perhaps it has to do with the timeless symbolic appeal of the “monster story.” In his essay “Narrative Performance in the Contemporary Monster Story,” Daniel Punday writes, “One of the most traditional ways that a writer can explore society through the body is by telling a monster story.” After all, monster stories reveal a society’s “tensions, inconsistencies, and gaps.” The “monsters” in Geek Love take pride in their deformities, but to a sometimes frightening, violent degree: One of the circus “freaks” even begins his own cult full of devotees who willingly mutilate themselves in order to be more like him; in another storyline, a mysterious figure pays beautiful women to have disfiguring operations. We want to prove that we’re special, but at what cost?
Much is made in Geek Love about the public nature of deformity; the parents claim to have given their children a great gift by making them “freaks.” As the mother puts it, “What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to make a living just by being yourself?” In this case, the children’s deformities are blatantly put on display in the family’s circus. But also, as the novel’s narrator points out, being physically deformed is a very “public” way to live. There is no anonymity for a hunchbacked albino dwarf; her body is always giving people specific and uncomfortable ideas about who she is.
In Geek Love, Dunn makes statements not just about the characters’ private and public selves but about the way we see bodies in general. While we’d expect these characters to battle with their unusual physical forms, the truth ends up being much more complicated. “The monster story suggests that authors and readers necessarily participate in the desire to see all bodies as monsters—as meaningful symbols.” In the age of the Internet and social media, we are still wrestling with which aspects of our selves are public and which are private, forever in this fluid process of managing what our bodies say about ourselves. Perhaps this is why Geek Love has been such an enduring, beloved “monster story.” As long as we have bodies, our monsters matter.