Why Katherine Dunn's 'Geek Love' Was a Bible to Weird Kids Like Me
Katherine Dunn died this week, but her work—especially the incredible novel "Geek Love"—spoke to everyone who thought of themselves as an outsider or weirdo.
Dual portrait of Katherine Dunn by Molly Crabapple
I discovered Katherine Dunn through a tattoo.
My Dunn initiators were conjoined twins, embracing each other in ink upon my friend's bicep. They were dark and pouty, and I could glimpse one twin's eyepatch when my friend brushed away her starlight hair. They glowered out at me, so secure in their place as Universal Freak Icons, that I felt like a moron outsider for not recognizing them.
"Who are they?" I asked.
"The twins from Geek Love," my friend answered.
Katherine Dunn is dead. She died on Thursday evening, at 70, from complications of lung cancer. Katherine Dunn's work, however, is so alive it bleeds.
I never met Katherine Dunn, the human. Geek Love, Katherine Dunn's creation, crawled through my eyes and into my brain furrows, as it did for a generation of young people, and changed how we saw ourselves.
The night my friend explained her tattoo, I bought Geek Love, then read it, in that fever of identification that Dunn initiates all go through. I learned the twins' names: Elly and Iphy. They were lissome piano players, joined at the waist, the star acts in the Binewski Family Carnival. I read about their parents (Al and Cristal Lil, who dosed themselves on radioactive elixirs in a quest to breed a family of freaks), and their siblings (Machiavellian genius Arty, telekinetic Chick, and Oly, the humpbacked albino girl who is the book's wry and heartbroken narrator). I devoured Dunn's story about the circus's rise and fall (Blood! Death cults! Tightrope Walkers! Amputations!) and when the end finally hit, and my eyes rose back from the page to the world, I was choked up like a child. Dunn's creatures were gone, but the world had rearranged itself in the time I spent getting to know them, and now I could face it with some steel in my spine. For jagged young horrors like me, Dunn's book was both a weapon and a home.
Geek Love is a weird kid Bible. Some disability rights activists have criticized the novel for using disability as a metaphor, with the "freakish" bodies of Oly, Arty, Iphy, and Elly standing in for deviance and social weirdness, but Geek Love is actually a celebration of difference. Not in that condescending, cutesy way, where "all colors to make up the rainbow." In Geek Love world, freaks might be heroes, or villains, but they live like giants. They are real as fire, leagues above the weak, mockable, hypocritical Normal Folks. Difference is power. As my friend Clayton Cubitt wrote, the thing that's strange in you is "sharp as diamond and jagged as a razor. Hone that, because that's the thing with which you'll cut the world."
Katherine Dunn cut the world. She was born in 1945 in the Pacific Northwest; her father abandoned the family when when she was two. After an itinerant childhood, she studied philosophy and psychology at Reed College, travelled to the Greek isles, had a kid in Ireland, then moved back to Portland. A photo of Dunn at 24 shows a lank-haired 60s beauty, complete with cigarette, Pucci print, and a mouth made to caress sarcasm like a sweet.
In 2016, it seems most famous American authors are vat-bred in MFA programs, but Dunn had the sort of actual blue-collar background so often appropriated by artists looking for cred. She was a tough broad. She painted houses and wrapped candy on factory assembly lines. She waited tables at diners and manned the taps at bars. Her first two novels came and went, but in 1989 Geek Love tore its way onto the bestseller list, making Dunn a finalist for the National Book Award. For decades, she wrote a celebrated boxing column for Portland's PDXS, and even trained as a boxer. In 2009, a 64-year-old Dunn fought off a purse snatcher 39 years her junior. "It was a helter-skelter affair," Dunn told Oregon Live. "Getting a tetanus shot, it made me feel young again." In both style and choice of subjects, Dunn was a pyromaniac—lavish, gonzo, extreme. Women are still told that The Edge is a new place for us, that tiptoeing onto it makes us "brave" and "pioneers", so we forget that for decades—hell, centuries—women like Dunn have been swaggering around The Edge like they owned it.
Messed up as we were, we had our own mutant magic. We didn't have to cut off pieces of ourselves.
One night, after hours sitting on the floor drinking whisky, a journalist friend asked if I wanted to hear her favorite poem.
She whispered the lines:
your mother is probably the only one you've ever known
who really wanted to kill you
and your mother stopped cars on sunset boulevard
by the length of her legs and the Magyar in her cheekbones
though she claimed it was just good posture
These words stayed with me for years before I learned Dunn wrote them. Of course she did. Who else could?
"We can imagine that they—that amorphous systemic 'they—won't know we're equal until they know we're dangerous. More important, we won't know it either," Dunn wrote in a 1995 Vogue essay on the return of the Bad Girl. Its an important point—Geek Love's Binewskis might love harder and think sharper than anyone from the straight world, but you'd never accuse them of being nicer. Geek Love could be titled Geek Treachery, for all the violence (literal and metaphorical) and betrayal (petty and grand) that the Binewskis dish out on each other.
There are many bad people in Geek Love, but only one true villain: Miss Lick. An obese heiress, Miss Lick is both obsessed and repulsed by men's desire to fuck hot chicks. On a quest to "save" these weak and vulnerable women, she offers impoverished beauties vast sums of money in exchange for deforming themselves. Lick's eyes fall on Miranda, Oly's daughter. Miranda's one sign of Binewksi heritage is a tiny tail, which she earns a living showing off at a strip club. Lick has one goal: Miranda's tail must go. Oly is equally determined to save it.
Lick might as well be one of the middle school psychologists I got hauled before as a tiny, arrogant, at-risk teen. She shares their savior complexes and wholesome condescension, their drive to erase difference in the name of protection, to destroy the uncanny in favor of the unthreatening, the extraordinary in favor of the safe.
Safety ought not to be the point of life, but Geek Love never whitewashes the world's danger. Early on, the sight of the Binewski kids' bodies so horrifies a normal that he tries to shoot them dead. Yes, the intolerant can wound you—but that's not the whole story. The Binewski kids don't merely survive, nor do they merely flourish: Arty takes a harrowing revenge.
This was the gift Katherine Dunn gave me, and so many other freaks and queers and sluts who loved her. Geek Love showed us that perhaps we would never fit into the normal world, but that that world was pallid and lacking. We could count on ourselves, and occasionally, on each other. Messed up as we were, we had our own mutant magic. We didn't have to cut off pieces of ourselves.
Despite all the blood, Geek Love is a book almost entirely without victims. Freaks are tough, in Dunn's world. For a fucked up young person, there's no message more comforting. The place the world thinks you're broken is exactly where you are strong.