I have to admit that I felt more than a little uneasy reading Katherine Dunn’s cult classic, Geek Love … almost as if I needed to look over my shoulder.
The novel – apparently loved by Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley and that most reliable of book critics, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers – had a premise that seemed to challenge current standards of decency.
Narrated by a bald, humpbacked dwarf, it was the story of parents who created their own family who could perform in their travelling sideshow. To create physically deformed babies, the father provided the mother with a cocktail of drugs and poisons to ensure her family pulled in the crowds.
The strategy worked perfectly, resulting in a set of teen Siamese twins, a limbless megalomaniac and a boy with telekinetic powers. And these were just the children who had survived – the deformed fetuses who did not are kept in jars and displayed for paying customers.
By now, you can probably understand my doubts. I wondered, was this book disrespectful to those with disabilities? Did it make light of knowingly causing harm to a fetus? Were readers laughing at these children deliberately created to have physical abnormalities?
And that is not all that pushes the boundaries of decency in this book. There is also a scene of domestic violence where a woman is killed and the perpetrator tries unsuccessfully to blow his face off.
I was shocked, and marveled that such a scene could exist in what is ostensibly a light and fantastical novel. Was it wrong treat this violence so lightly?
I read with a mixture of incredulity and horror, feeling guilty to be reading such a story. Having spent time on Twitter, and reading the enraged posts and comments there, I knew how easy it could be to cause outrage; I had seen huge pile ons resulting from a seemingly innocent remark and dreaded ever becoming the subject of such anger. I had become used to reading and re-reading my posts to ensure that there was nothing that could be interpreted as being in any way offensive.
In contrast, here was a book that I doubt would have been published today, as it so clearly pushed all boundaries, as if challenging the reader was part of the writer’s motivation.
Despite all of my reservations, I didn’t hate it, and certainly not enough put it down without finishing it. I decided that if I was going to do any justice to the book and find out why it had been so enduringly popular since it was released in 1989, I had to stop second guessing whether it had gone too far and start getting lost in the strangeness of the book.
When I did, I was drawn into its magic and felt a sensation similar to when I had first started reading novels, that literature was full of possibility, where flights of imagination.
In the end, once I stopped being afraid of any offense caused by the book, I realised that the novel was by not one of division or ridicule for those living with disability or difference. On the contrary, it embraced difference in a way that was wholehearted and unafraid.
Unlike in so many novels I have read in which the heroine is beautiful and unceasingly kind, one of the central characters had no limbs and ruled over his family with breathtaking cruelty. Despite his clear personality flaws, he was adored by his sister, the narrator, and other members of the family. They recognised the insecurity behind his behaviour, forgave almost everything.
He is also adored outside the family, bringing together a flock of followers who go to extreme lengths to show him their support and to become like him.
In the novel, people without physical abnormalities were dismissed as being ‘norms’, unworthy of much attention. The tone is not one of mocking those who don’t conform but of celebrating diversity.
There is no doubt that this is a strange book, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. But in the way of most good books, it certainly taught me something about myself – that I don’t need to be poised on the edge of being offended on someone else’s behalf. In doing so, I risk missing the whole point of the story. Ultimately, this unique story is one of love, acceptance and family and what could be more inoffensive than that?
It has also reintroduced me to the wonder of reading books of excess and extravagance, unlike many I have read recently. This novel couldn’t be more different to the inward-looking and realism of stories by Sally Rooney or Rachel Cusk. As much as I love the work of those writers, sometimes it is nice to read something as wild and free of fear or judgement as Geek Love.