There is something unsettling about a carnival, a freakshow.
Even in my relatively mundane West Yorkshire childhood, there was always something cool about when the ‘feast’ came to town. The feasties were travellers of dubious character and to be avoided. Of course there weren’t any freaks on show (most of them were the customers) but even then it was exciting and out of our usual experience, perhaps even a little bit dangerous.
I recently read and hugely enjoyed Ray Bradbury’s Something wicked this way comes, centred around a supernatural carnival that visits fifties mid west towns, seducing people, stealing souls. I think the travelling circus or carnival or midway or even a plain old carnie feast plays to our fear, excitement and ultimately fascination of the outsider. Our dull lives are shown to be lacking but for the fleeting visit of thrills and scares.
Geek Love takes the idea of a freak show and cranks it up to eleven with in your face thrills and chills. Dunn takes the perverse idea of biological manipulation to create the ultimate family of weirdos, each sibling taking the freak factor to the next level — I saw parallels with Nazi Germany playing God with human experimentation, as Al tried a new concoction of drugs on Lil to see if he could create the next headline act. In fact if there was a modern incarnation of this travelling circus of unease it would definitely have some kind of ‘Freak Factor’ feature with a Simon Cowell-esque take on what it really takes to be the top of the freaks.
Dunne carefully reveals the family in all its glorious physicality with eye-popping detailed description. There was no doubt in my mind who looked like what and how they all came about – well frankly it was absurd, comedic and actually very dark, at times disturbing: a trippy cross between the Addams Family, The Partridge Family and Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The author built the characters so solidly that we cared about the outcomes and the complexity of this ultimate dysfunctional family. The early days of the family cutely telling stories by the fire like a twisted Little House on the Prairie or better still, The Waltons, is in stark contrast to the empire of dirt they ultimately, unintentionally create.
As I write, the characters come tumbling onto the page and it’s at times like these that I’d be riffing on the family…Arty, the twins, Oly, Chick and how much Dunne made me care about what happened and what helped me make sense of the ending of the book. The crazy characters we meet along the way add a lush depth to the storytelling too, detailed case studies of oddness and weirdness, all looking pretty normal against the Binewski backdrop.
The book reminded me of an amphetamine-fuelled take on John Irvine, perhaps crossed with Tim Burton on acid. It’s bizarre, surreal and quite electric. All credit to Dunn though as we take each increasing level of disturbing activity in our collective stride. From the pinnacle of Arturism, a kind of amputee Moonie division to Miss Lick’s reverse plastic surgery, we were relentlessly pounded with outrageous themes that dared us to read on…
Yes, at times it was disturbing. And yes, at times I was properly shocked and had to close my mouth at the sheer oddness of it all.
But the language was unflinching and felt accurate, visceral, direct, the sledgehammer prose at times delivering knockout blows…but tender when it needed to be and patient when painting the picture.
Ultimately for me it’s a book about fitting in, examining what we mean about being normal and what it means to be an outsider. As a kid all I ever wanted to do was fit in — I was embarrassed by anything that made me stand out: my mum being too fat, our house looking too poor, and wearing the wrong type of parka (yeah…really). Central themes of surgically altering body shapes to look unattractive and biologically altering bodies to make them more entertaining are pretty hardcore and amongst the most challenging we’ve read.
But Dunne takes us on a journey that is moves at a clip (unpretentiously super easy to read), breezily taking us on a macabre road trip through the darkest heartland of America, holding up a mirror to my own ideas about self esteem, image, delighting in shocking my sensibilities but at the same time seducing me into feeling that really this is just a normal tale, about normal folk. Perhaps it’s me that’s weird??
The ending is like an episode from Tales from the Unexpected (as I suppose the whole Miss Lick exercise is, but no matter) and rather unsatisfyingly for me, Oly’s daughter never gets to know she is her mother.
But Dunn is merciless, and she was always going to be brutal with her ending of Oly’s life as she was with the Fabulon burning to the ground with all destroyed, burnt to a crisp and Arty cooked to a turn.