I’d heard of this one before Donna suggested it—a few of my friends in college were big fans—but all I knew was the title. I just assumed it was some cutesy rom-com about nerds; maybe they bonded over cosplay and LARPing, something like that. So whatever else, I’ll give Geek Love that much. Couple of pages in, and I had no idea what was going on, except that this definitely wasn’t a rom-com, and the only cosplay I could expect to see would probably take years of therapy to forget.
Since Donna opened with some positive, I’ll follow her lead. There’s a lot to like here. Once the story gets going (I’d say right around the time Chick is born), Dunn had my attention. The occasional bits of foreshadowing, like the sections set in the present that let us know that the family outside of Oly and Lil are all dead, and Oly’s occasional troubled commentary, create a constant sense of tension; you know that everything’s going to go rotten eventually, but you’re not exactly sure when, and that makes for good reading.
Plus, the nastiness of the regular interactions between the main freaks (generally Arty inspired or created) combined with their basic connection to each other—well, it’s a great dynamic, isn’t it? People who love each other so intensely that they’re willing to do anything to control that relationship, and what makes them dangerous is that there’s no restrictions on “anything.” The benefit in freakdom, the thing that Arturism hinges on, is that being ostracized from normal society means freedom from any imposed standards of behavior. The more freakish you are, the less is expected of you, and that means you can do whatever you feel needs to be done without fear of judgment. After all, who’s gonna judge someone whose more a thing than a person?
Dunn gets a lot of play out of that freedom, but one of the novel’s flaws is that she lets her ambitions get the better of her, doing too much with too many characters for them all to get their due. Oly is a terrific lead, and Arty is also strong, but the further away from those two you move, the more indistinct things become. I had a good sense of the twins and Chick, but I wasn’t satisfied with the time we spent with them, especially Chick. His transformation from self-loathing healer to mutilating surgeon to weapon of mass destruction was way too sketchy. The stuff we got about Iphy and Elly wasn’t a lot better. I liked the often oblique nature of the novel’s violence, but sometimes that obliqueness meant missing bits that should’ve held things together.
The rest of the cast is hardly even there; the parents wander in and out of the narrative as though the author sometimes forgets they’re around (Lil especially—there’s a lot of potential tragedy in her, but we just get snippets; not nearly enough to justify the image of her trying to fuck herself pregnant off her dead husband’s penis). Miss Lick is fascinating, and thematically, it’s great how her quest to de-sexualize beautiful women so they can reach their full potential mirrors Arty’s cult, but the sections with her seem grafted on from some other book. It almost fits, but it just needed a little extra to fit right.
“Not fitting right” is probably my biggest problem here. Geek Love is well-written, and generally engaging, but it’s too unfocused and ramshackle at times to be really satisfying. Especially the final fate of the family; after all that build-up, to have everything end so abruptly was a huge disappointment. Geek Love is a brave piece of work, even if it can come across as unfinished, and underdeveloped. I’d recommend to friends, but I’d definitely add some caveats.
To answer Donna’s points:
• I read because of the freak show, and because I really didn’t ever know what was going to happen next. In terms of emotional connection, not so much; obviously Oly had her moments (although I found her much easier to relate to as a grown-up), and I was upset about Elly’s lobotomy and the danger surrounding Chick, but the somewhat skeletal nature of the narrative kept me from getting much closer.
• I don’t think redemption really enters into it until the very end, when Oly gives everything to keep her daughter “special.” It’s the only point in the book where a character sacrificed something to protect someone else without hero worship or fear. (Okay, Chick did it a lot, but that was kind of built into him.)
• Al and Lil are basically shunted to the side because Dunn needs Arty to be the center of the show, and couldn’t seem to find a better way to deal with them. This just goes back to one of my problems with the novel—whether they were marginalized intentionally or through oversight, it’s ineffective, which makes it distracting every time they do show their faces.
• I think we want to believe that this book is an indictment of the “norms,” because none of us consider ourselves to be normal; but there’s nobody normal of any importance in the novel, and as far as I can remember, all the horrible things are done by the freaks. (Unless you want to argue Miss Lick is normal.)
• Arturism was a clever idea, and I wish it had been further developed. Like most everything else.