After encountering Katherine Dunn’s shocking short story Rhonda Discovers Art (read an excerpt here) in the Paris Review, I rushed out and bought her highly-praised novel Geek Love. It has been sitting on my shelf now through 2 Boston winters. With no other reading obligations and my eye on the Halloween holiday, I thought what better book to read now, just in time for all the street-wandering freaks, geeks, and sugar-high children, than a horror story about circus freaks and geeks dishing out cotton candy and power-hungry plots to create cults and murder people? Perfect. And Dunn’s biblio-resume makes her seem like just the freak for the job (she wrote the text for a book of homicide photography, she writes for boxing magazines, and even that Paris Review story has got its share of gross, weird, and dead). It’s possible she and Chuck Palahniuk are biological siblings separated at birth and growing independently into big adult weirdos. I love it.
So, maybe I went in with my expectations set a wee too high or maybe my expectations were just mis-located because somewhere along the journey to page 200, I found myself continually asking Why am I reading this again?
The story’s narrator Oly is one of several experimental children of two circus freaks who decided to to deliberately expose the wife to various cocktails of alcohol, drugs, and even radiation to ensure that their children came out with deformities and oddities that would make them perfect circus freaks. Oly, with a short, bald, albino hunchback, turns out to be the least “special” of the litter. She gives us most of the story of their childhood in flashback, occasionally returning to the present to tell the story of her and her “normal” daughter. These moments in the present make up the better story – the characters are more nuanced, the settings are fleshed out fittingly, the plot is subtle and unpredictable.
But the storyline that flows through the flashbacks… well, it doesn’t flow very well at all actually. It is long-winded and circuitous without any indication that any of it is very relevant to what we thought was the main story. After the first few forays into Oly’s childhood, it starts to feel like we’re being beaten over the head with what I hope is character development, but, despite these achingly long flashbacks, Dunn fails to get us to care about the characters at all.
There are certainly qualities about the flashbacks that make the story interesting. It is all vividly portrayed and it is a pretty awesome parade of weird colorful characters. But if I’m gonna suck it up and plow through the last 150 pages, I hope to get a little more story. Maybe it will all come together and payoff.
Maybe, though, I won’t finish reading it. Since I was reading it to feed a little horror into my Halloween, now that it’s over, if I find myself asking why am I reading this again?, I’m not sure I’ll have any legitimate answer.
Maybe I’ll give it another try next Halloween. Maybe I’ll have a revelation while eating my midnight snack of Brie and corn chips. Maybe you’ll leave a comment and tell me why I should give it a chance. Or… maybe I’ll spend the next few days reading the entire The Walking Dead series for a heavy dose of classic, quality horror.
The Gist in metaphor:
Chucky Doll – you think it’s a great idea; it’ll be funny, you know, cause it’s all supposed to be a killer doll and you’re into that horror stuff, but then you after a few pranks on your friends and your little sister, it’s just a freaking creepy doll you spent way too much money on and occasionally gives you a mild heart attack when you see it on your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
About Katherine Dunn:
Despite, my not incredibly nice review, her short story in The Paris Review Rhonda Discovers Art is basically amazing. And she is obviously talented considering some busy, important people thought Geek Love was worth the National Book Award. Other works: Attic, Truck, and various articles in prominent publications.