The review and summary have been separated so that if you would prefer to avoid spoilers of Geek Love by author Katherine Dunn you can stop reading. The summary has been adapted from an earlier spoiler full review and has some overlap with the spoiler free review.
Geek Love: Spoiler Free Review
I picked up Geek Love after finding the title on a list of body horror books. I was looking for something for October, something horror, something creepy, maybe something kind of gross. The description of a carny family that creates their own freak show caught my attention and I dove in.
I was not prepared. I don’t know that I would call it horror but I’m not sure what else it would be. It’s creepy, but not in a spooky way, more like a sex offender stalking you at the park way. And gross? Hoo boy! Is it ever!
The Binewski family does create their own freak show but I thought it’d be in a kidnapping and mutilating strangers way. Somehow this is worse. They purposefully cause birth defects in their own pregnancies in order to build up their circus acts.
They have Arty, the Aqua Boy with fins instead of arms and legs, Iphy and Elly, the conjoined twins attached at the pelvis, Oly, our narrator and albino, hunchback, dwarf, and Chick, who appears perfectly normal from the outside but developed a secret gift. Together they are the most cruel, evil, vile, dysfunctional family I think I’ve ever read about.
Everyone in this book is disgusting. Not because they are deformed in any way, but because they are f@$ing garbage human beings who manipulate each other and strangers in ways so malicious that I started to question the author’s mental health.
They solve their problems in the most extreme ways possible, almost always involving violence and never involving sitting down to talk it out. I thought Oly was going to be the sympathetic one at first but by the end she proved to be just as bad as the worst of them.
Speaking of the worst of them, Arty, the Aqua Boy, is a whole new level of psychopath. The things he does in this book upset me to my very core and at one point I even got a little emotional and almost started crying when recounting one of his acts to my bf. My imagination can’t conjure up anything much worse.
So that’s where this book gets difficult to rate. I don’t think I enjoyed reading it. It was extremely disturbing and not at all in a laugh it off kind of way. Additionally, it was one of those books that, for me at least, I found myself spacing out and then zapping back to the page at something shocking thinking “wait, what’d I miss?”
However, I really enjoyed telling people about it and writing the spoiler full review gives me quite a kick. And if nothing else this book is truly original. I always have to give points to something that I have seen nowhere before. I have never and probably will never again read anything like Geek Love.
My younger self that more actively sought out exploitation films probably would have loved this book. I am no stranger to shock value gross out cinema, even just this year I went out of my way to finally watch A Serbian Film (largely considered the shockiest of the shocking) but just because you can sit through an hour an a half of a movie doesn’t mean you want to read it in book form.
Have you seen The Human Centipede? Imagine stretching that experience out for the 20 days it took to read this book. It’s too much, it’s tiresome. Maybe it’s not for me anymore. It’s definitely not for most readers. But for that special audience, this will be your new favorite book.
Summary and Spoiler Full Review
Author Katherine Dunn
This is the spoiler full review and summary of Geek Love. This review also contains graphic language and descriptions of pretty much any trigger you could have as there is no other way to describe what happens in this book. A Geek Love Summary just wouldn’t be complete without some vulagrity.
I was unprepared for Geek Love. I thought it was going to be a weird horror novel about a circus family who makes a bunch of freaks for their sideshow. It was listed on a body horror list I found and I do not think it fits there. I am not sure it is horror but if I had to choose between the Binewskis in Geek Love or the family in Texas Chainsaw Massacre to have Thanksgiving dinner with I would actually have to think about the decision.
The Binewski parents, Al and Lil, set out to make their own world class freak show. They do this by purposefully contaminating their own pregnancies in order to have deformed children. They “succeed” in giving birth to 5 children ready to perform. The ones who do not survive their awful experiments and are still born or die soon after birth are put in jars and put on display.
Arty, the Aqua Boy is born with flippers instead of arms or legs. Iphy and Elly are conjoined twins attached at the pelvis, sharing a body from the hips down but having their own torsos, arms, and heads. Oly, the narrator, is an albino, hunchback, dwarf. And Chick, the youngest, was born appearing normal but developed a sort of telekinesis that they deemed valuable enough to keep him alive. When he was born they considered literally throwing him away because of his lack of birth defects. Aaaand the book only gets more fucked up from there.
Arty becomes the main instigator for events as he is a supremely charismatic psychopath with an extreme narcissism and jealousy that cause him to play everyone around him like puppets. Elly hates him, Iphy adores him, Chick obeys him, and Oly is romantically in love with him and wants to commit incest with him.
Through a series of events that actually flow pretty naturally for such a strange occurrence Arty becomes his own cult leader. He gains a doctor accomplice and the two of them begin taking money in exchange for voluntary amputations. Arty’s followers start by paying to have their toes amputated one by one. Then their fingers, legs, arms, until they are nothing but a torso free from all obligation and therefore enlightened under the cult of Arty.
Newcomers to the Arturians wait on the torsos hand and foot until they are ready (and have enough money) to get their own amputations. Arty meanwhile brings “normal” girls back to his trailer to have sex with just so he can flex on all the normie guys he loathes so much. Chick is training under the doctor and using his telekinesis as pain suppression for the patients. Oly waits on Arty and does anything he asks just so she can be near him.
As Arty’s cult is building in Geek Love, Iphy and Elly discover that they have their own way of making a fortune. Elly, without Iphy’s consent, sells their virginity for $50 and then they realize they can probably get a lot more. They find a high bidder and begin to prostitute themselves. In one scene this is described in obscene detail. I guess I’m not surprised that’s how a two headed girl would please a man I just didn’t have such a vivid image of it before.
Arty doesn’t like the twins having their own hustle. He wants to be the only successful one. The only one with any sort of attention. So he tells his body guard with gigantism, one eye, and a scarred up face that he can “have” them.
So naturally, the giant goes to the girls’ room and says he’s going to marry them. They laugh in his face and say no. Oly is sent to go plead for Arty to call it off, Arty says their best bet is to just not resist. The giant begins to rape them, as the family stands by, and Lil comes in to rescue them. She shoots the giant mid rape and he ejaculates inside of them upon dying. Of course now they are pregnant with the dead giant’s rape baby. Okay Geek Love, that’s a lot, but hey, it ain’t boring!
After the impregnation Arty once again gets bored. He asks the doctor to separate the twins. She says she can’t. Arty comes up with a back up plan. The doctor lobotomizes Elly. Now, Iphy is pregnant and attached to her brain dead, drooling, dead weight sister. She is being drained from all sides and has to somehow take care of both of them. It was at this point in the book that I considered stopping reading.
I honestly am very disturbed by this and putting myself into Iphy’s position makes me tear up a little. I cannot imagine anything more horrible than being physically attached to the now useless shell of the person I loved more than I could even love myself. And thinking about the casualty in which Arty made this decision sickens me to my very core. He is a truly despicable character and should go down in literary history with the worst of them.
Now’s a good time to take a break, here’s a picture of a cute lamb in a little shirt. You can take as much time as you need here before continuing this gut churning tale of contemptible behavior.
Elly’s lobotomy spins off a new series of events in which Chick, now trained enough to take on the doctor tasks on his own, drugs the doctor and drags her to a stage in front of Arty’s cult members. He then lobotomizes her in front of them and claims his new position of power. Now he will be doing the amputations, the enlightening procedures for them, and the doctor is hailed as reaching full enlightenment. Congratulations Arturians! Your journey now ends at lobotomy instead of just conscious torso.
While all of this was going on Oly was enjoying an actually somewhat healthy relationship with a kid in the circus known as “Pin Kid.” Also a hunchback, his act was to lay on a bed of nails and pierce any flesh on his body he could reach. Him and Oly are a cute pair and could have had a healthy relationship but Oly calls it off because Arty says it’s him or me and she chooses Arty. She then worships Arty’s self restraint in only sending him away and not killing him. Geek Love manages to highlight pretty much every way relationships can be absolutely toxic.
But Oly is still lonely. She does not actually have a romantic relationship with her brother. He feeds her delusion of it just enough to manipulate her into doing anything and everything for him no matter how degrading. But she knows it’s still not enough so she decides to take matters into her own hands and begs Chick for a favor.
She wants to become pregnant like Iphy and Elly and she wants Chick to telekinetically move Arty’s sperm from his testicles into her egg. So he does what any good brother would do, practices on a cat and when that is successful he moves his brothers sperm into his sister and impregnates her successfully.
Now that Oly is pregnant Elly starts to slowly come back mentally. It’s not much but it’s noticeable. Iphy still has to deliver the baby without much help from her sister. Which is a shame considering the baby, Mumpo, is the fattest baby anyone has ever given birth to. He’s described as a grotesque lump of sweaty baby flesh that eats so much he sucks dry all four of his mothers’ breasts three times a day in addition to eating anything anyone puts near his mouth.
Oly then has her baby, a beautiful baby girl tarnished only by a tail. Lil tells Oly that she should “go ahead and love her anyway.” Arty doesn’t like it at all though and tells Oly to send the baby away to an orphanage. And yes, she should be grateful he didn’t just kill the infant.
Elly comes back mentally just long enough to commit one act. She kills Mumpo, their fat fat baby. Then, Iphy kills Elly which subsequently causes herself to die. Then everyone but Lil and Oly dies in some sort of fire. Honestly this all happened on about one page and I’m a little unclear as to how it all went down. All I know is that everyone is dead and they deserved it.
Lil goes absolutely crazy from this event, she runs out of her trailer at the sound of the explosion of flames and finds her dead and smoldering husband on the ground. She’s such a wreck that her reaction is to take his penis out of his pants and start grinding on his dead body in the middle of the wreckage. So she goes away to a mental hospital and Oly leaves to start a life as a voice actor.
Throughout the book we get a few flash forwards of Oly stalking her grown daughter. This is where we meet up with that side plot. There is a woman in this world called Ms. Lick who pays young girls to have surgeries performed on themselves that will desexualize them and therefore make them more productive members of society.
For instance she pays one young woman to have her breasts removed and another to have her vagina sewn closed and clitoris removed. She has targeted Oly’s daughter since she has been performing a freak show strip tease act in which she has made her tail an asset.
Ms. Lick wants to pay her to have it removed and Oly thinks that she should not lose that which makes her special. Instead of talking to either her daughter or Ms. Lick about her concerns Oly decides the only possible way to fix this situation is to befriend Ms. Lick and then murder her. So she buys a gun but that would be too easy a way for someone to die.
So she traps Ms. Lick in a poison gas chamber of her own creation and listens as she very slowly suffers in pain and fear. Oly has a moment of wanting to back out so she opens the door to find a writhing Ms. Lick and then shoots her and herself. She leaves behind a very distressing suicide note sent to her daughter explaining who she is and that she can use a trust fund she set up but that she also should take care of her extremely mentally ill grandmother that she has never heard of before.
I think this book checked nearly every box it could on the list of fucked up shit that could ever happen. Rape, murder, incest, necrophilia, assault, stalking, extreme emotional abuse and brainwashing, child abuse and neglect, and extortion. Did I miss anything? We did not get explicit cannibalism but that’s about it. I think this book is placed in the horror category just because it is too extreme to be considered a drama. If you like pushing your limits and trying to find your shock value breaking point this book is for you.
Geek Love was a tough read. The content was very difficult to manage at times. There was no relief! Every character had their own brand of reprehensible and every plot point outdid the last in terms of making me want to put the book down.
But I didn’t. For some reason it did keep me going. Mostly because I’ve never seen it before. This book is truly original and in today’s age of remakes, reboots, sequels, and franchises I always appreciate originality. I do think there is an audience for this book. I do not think it is quite me anymore. I used to spend days trying to find the exploitation film that would finally hit my limits. Hours and hours spent watching Cannibal Holocaust, Salo, A Serbian Film, etc. That young lady probably would’ve loved this book.
But as I’ve outgrown that phase a little I found this book difficult to get through. I get too empathetic and am torn in too many directions feeling too much pain for these characters and the abhorrent situation their parents concocted for them. I would audibly gasp or let out a moan as I was reading these pages. I think the author accomplished something there. Any reaction is better than being bored. Just step cautiously into this one, undertaking this tale is a moderate act of masochism that you should be prepared for.
2.5/5 sets of twins 👭 👭 🙍♀️
For another disturbing read that’s a bit more tolerable check out Goodbye Moonflower
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Buy it here: Geek Love: A Novel