Geek Love at 25
March 8, 2014 4:30 AM   Subscribe

"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."
posted by R. Schlock (27 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Wait, there's a book about the Digger song? (Jk I need to read this book already, don't I?)
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:00 AM on March 8, 2014

I'm mostly amazed to think Geek Love would ever have been a tough sell. Plenty of "literary" fantasy existed at that time -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez was quite popular, as was Kurt Vonnegut, The Witches of Eastwick was a recent bestseller made into a huge film, et cetera. The idea that this stuff existed off the radar of a stodgy publishing establishment may not be entirely untrue, but Geek Love is the sort of (for its time) genre-resistant fantasy novel that critics are usually predisposed to be quite kind to.

For me, I like Geek Love a lot, but I never got around to reading it until a few years ago, at which point a decade-plus of Vertigo comics, Takashi Miike movies and generational sagas of highly quirky families perhaps made it seem less a revelation than it might have been had I read it back in '89.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:14 AM on March 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Cool! I just finished Geek Love within the last month, interspersed with watching True Detective. There were points in there with Arty preaching his thing and Rust Cohle talking about time being a flat circle that I was fairly sure I was losing my already tenuous grasp on reality. Good times.
posted by nevercalm at 5:26 AM on March 8, 2014

I loved Geek Love, I know if I read it again I would be overcome with homesickness for Portland, land of my childhood and my early twenties
posted by angrycat at 5:28 AM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read it in the very early 1990s and loved it. I had never known anything about the author or the story of the book's creation, so this article was really interesting to read. I wonder if she has another book forthcoming, or if she is done with writing.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:53 AM on March 8, 2014

From the article:

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, “Rhonda Discovers Art,” in the [Paris] Review.
posted by nevercalm at 5:55 AM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Reading comprehension fail on my part! Thanks for the correction.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:02 AM on March 8, 2014

Skip the rest of this comment if you want to avoid a possible spoiler, however vague.

I read it when it was nominated for the National Book Award 25 yrs ago. I immediately loaned it out with my marginalia. I hear it's been passed around a bit and lots of other marginalia added -- much by my many siblings. Time to track it down and see what that freak show added.

Good article. I knew she was a boxing writer but didn't know she'd become a grunge icon or had other books.

My favorite image in the book? (Is this a spoiler? I don't know. Stop reading!) I loved that tail when it danced.
posted by surplus at 6:55 AM on March 8, 2014

I remember that it was big news when Harry Anderson bought the film rights. It just disappeared after that.

I had not even thought of Dunn or this book in literally decades! It was a great, hard read.
posted by Danf at 7:43 AM on March 8, 2014

Oh my god, I loved this book. I read it in high school (mid 90's). Stumbled across it when wandering through the library stacks; the neon orange cover jumped out at me.
posted by Windigo at 7:56 AM on March 8, 2014

Oh, I need to re-read this -- it was so delightful to come across it in the 90s and realize, "Wow, if all these other people like this book too, I must not be as much of a weirdo as I thought."
posted by FelliniBlank at 8:29 AM on March 8, 2014

Amazon link to Geek Love, in case anyone else is moved to buy the book. Here's the Worldcat link to check your local library.
posted by Nelson at 8:37 AM on March 8, 2014

When I first started selling books in 1993 at Lincoln Park Books in Chicago we sold this out each week. We were so excited to share it with readers.
posted by djseafood at 8:45 AM on March 8, 2014

Geek Love is the sort of (for its time) genre-resistant fantasy novel that critics are usually predisposed to be quite kind to.

Yup. Angela Carter's work (including Nights at the Circus, obviously) was very popular then, also.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 10:41 AM on March 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

A lot of stuff makes me feel old lately, but the fact that this book is 25 years old hits especially hard somehow -- partly because it made me realize how much I miss finding a surprising new book that I love in an actual freaking bookstore.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:52 AM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read it when it first came out. I didn't realize at the time how groundbreaking a book it was. It was strange and I often felt sad while reading it, but also confused: the world I lived in and the world described in the book was so completely different from each other that I never viewed that world as being in mine. But I didn't question the validity of that world, nor did I question the right for the world to exist even though it would never be something that I would like to participate in.

The fact that people read this book, were changed by this book and in turn went on apply those changes to their lives is impressive, and maybe a little scary.

I should re-read it. Being the same age now as Dunn was when she wrote it, I'd be curious to see if my perspective and thoughts of the book have changed.
posted by ashbury at 11:04 AM on March 8, 2014

It's one of my favourite books. I can't say it was formative, because I read it first when I was at college and not during high school, but I first picked it up because it was mentioned in The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror by David Skal, which was formative.

And then I found a second-hand copy at the New Orleans Science Fiction Convention, and fell in madly in love.
posted by Katemonkey at 11:04 AM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

In retrospect, I realize that the ex-girlfriend who turned me on to this book also introduced me to High Weirdness by Mail and Loompanics. From there I went on to Forteana, conspiracy theories, Amok, RE/Search, FactSheet 5, and beyond. I've recommended this book to quite a few people, and it's interesting to see who loves it, and who can only get through the first few chapters before quitting in disgust.

My print copy is long gone, and the closest bookstore to me is 20+ miles away, so I'm off to order this from Amazon. I hope it's as amazing as I remember.
posted by ralan at 11:15 AM on March 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

For me, the great thing about Geek Love is the way it actively anticipated and manipulated the emotional reactions of its readers. I mean, all art does that, obviously, but Geek Love was one of the first books I ever caught doing it to me. Like the first time you realize that someone wants to sleep with you and you catch them trying to get under your skin. Geek Love made claims on its readers. You had to accept it and let it change you, or go through the work of rejecting it. There was no neutral place. The book weirded you out describing these freaks and then gradually won you over to seeing them as human beings. By mid-book, you're congratulating yourself for being such an enlightened and sensitive person. And then suddenly Dunn has Arturo go full-on triumph of the will and you realize that these characters are warped at the very core of their being. And, realizing that, you've suddenly indicted yourself for normalizing them without actually knowing them.

Reading it just left me breathless. It was the book you talked about with a few friends after the party had started to die down. It was the first work of art I discovered that I felt actually belonged to me. It was something that couldn't have been written before it was and it was a thing that I knew instantly that not many people would be able to enjoy. In those days, I was a big name dropper, but Geek Love was a book that I would actively not tell people about, for fear they'd read it and misconstrue its intent. Conversely, when I found someone who'd read it and loved it, knowing that would instantly change how I felt about them.

I'm also dismayed that it's 25 years old now. But I've wondered for so many years who Katherine Dunn was and whether she had another novel in her or not, that this article just slotted right into a space inside me that I'd carved out a long time ago.
posted by R. Schlock at 12:07 PM on March 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

I thought I'd read Geek Love. Turns out I read Freaks' Amour By Tom De Haven.

I think I need to reread Freaks' Amour, and then read Geek Love, and sort it all out.
posted by vitabellosi at 2:19 PM on March 8, 2014

Good article. I knew she was a boxing writer but didn't know she'd become a grunge icon or had other books.

Not just a "boxing writer", something of a boxer herself.
posted by vitabellosi at 2:32 PM on March 8, 2014

Love this book, and I agree - impossible to believe I read it 20+ years ago.

Geek Love is literally the only book that when I recommend it to someone, the someone always tells me they loved it. Granted, I only recommend it to certain people I think might be up for it, but I do that with most beloved books and am always surprised when people don't adore what I do. But this book always hits.
posted by Mchelly at 6:17 PM on March 8, 2014

Dunn also wrote the very thoughtful essay in Sean Tejaratchi's Death scenes: a homicide detective's scrapbook.
posted by goofyfoot at 3:49 PM on March 9, 2014

I didn't realize how directly she inspired the Jim Rose circus. At the time it seemed like they both came out of a certain zeitgeist, along with the RE/search book.

I love the detail of the book designer putting an extra leg on the dog logo!
posted by gingerbeer at 3:57 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I read a collection of her boxing essays and they were fine but not particularly special. That isn't supposed to be a dig at her. I admire a competent, good writer and not everyone needs to be amazing. But it was really weird because they're super straight ahead and the whole time I could not understand how this could be the same woman who wrote Geek Love!
posted by latkes at 7:33 PM on March 9, 2014

Also, although I loved Geek Love, I would never re-read it. It is associated in my head with Tom Robbins - books that were so amazing in one special moment and that I would never want to subject to the critical analysis of age.
posted by latkes at 7:35 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I somehow managed to get through the 90's without even hearing of this book. And I'd seen the Jim Rose Circus twice!
So because of this thread I went down to our favourite local book store on Bloor St. (which is closing next week after 40 years or so because of rising rents) and picked up a copy. Just started it. Thanks!
posted by chococat at 3:21 PM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

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