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Olympia Binewski did not grow up like other girls. For one, her parents were the owners of a traveling carnival. Lil and Al Binewski came up with a scheme to breed their own freak show, experimenting with a cocktail of drugs to create their perfect children. There's Oly herself, an albino hunchback dwarf; her brother Arty, who has flippers instead of human limbs and a sociopathic personality; her sisters Elly and Iphy, who are Conjoined Twins, and the youngest, Chick, who appears outwardly normal but has strange telepathic powers.

Then things start to get downright disturbing. Very disturbing. Suffice it to say, this is not a book for anyone except those with the strongest of stomachs.

Geek Love, written by Katherine Dunn, is a somewhat obscure book probably due to its polarizing effect with critics, who have called it either brilliant or repulsive and disgusting. Tim Burton has expressed a desire to adapt it for the screen, but whether or not that will ever happen is still up in the air.

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The Novel Contains Examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Oly loves her parents, but their treatment of her is up for debate. They make her feel inadequate for not being "special" enough, because her particular deformities aren't so marketable as those of her siblings. Then there's the whole issue of the parents deliberately taking drugs in order to create freakish, deformed children whom they could exploit.
  • Accomplice by Inaction: Ellie often accuses Oly of being this to Arty and his many travesties, but the latter doesn't see it that way.
  • Addled Addict: "Crystal" Lil, once she becomes an old woman and years of abusing pills catch up with her.
  • Adults Are Useless: Al and Lil either don't know anything about their children's Sibling Rivalry, or don't do anything to stop them. Once Arty takes over, neither will stand up to him.
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  • All Take and No Give: Arty to Oly. Also his true intention for his cultists. He makes them think he's giving them purpose and contentment by having them join his cult and become like him, but really they're just giving him their entire lifesavings, their limbs, and ultimately their lives.
  • Attention Whore: Arty. Big time.
  • Baby Factory: Lil becomes pregnant no less than ten times (the first four were stillborn and two more didn't survive infancy) and abuses drugs and radiation each time for the express purpose of breeding new show attractions.
  • Bait-and-Switch: From the title, no less. Be honest, the first time you read it you thought this book was going to be about brainy, socially awkward people stumbling through dating and/or romantic love, right? Interestingly, Dunn still uses the words correctly: carnival geeks struggling with family love. She just cleverly set up our expectations to tear them down.
  • Body Horror: What the Arturian cultists go through.
  • Blessed with Suck: Chick, to the extreme.
  • Blind Obedience: Oly towards her parents and Arty.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Lil is a platinum blonde, Elly and Iphy are brunettes, and all female carnival staff are redheads (through dye, wigs, or otherwise). Enforced by Al and Lil, the latter of whom points out it makes it easy to spot her daughters in a crowd.
  • Blue Blood: It's implied that Lil was this before she left home to join the carnival.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Oly and Iphy are both romantically in love with their brother, Arty. Oly even has Chick impregnate her with Arty's sperm, and gives birth to his daughter, Miranda.
  • Bungled Suicide: The Bag Man.
  • Cain and Abel: Iphy and Elly represent the female, conjoined variant.
  • Cassandra Truth: Elly is the only person to see Arturo for what he truly is and fear/despise him for it (unlike Oly), and she tries to warn Oly and Iphy against trusting him many times, to no avail.
  • Circus Brat: Oly and her siblings.
  • Conjoined Twin Threesome Fantasy: Iphy and Elly make big bucks with it.
  • Child by Rape: Mumpo.
  • Children Are Innocent: Inverted. Adults, as far as Oly is concerned, are the ones who're innocent, naive, and view childhood through Nostalgia Goggles, while children understand very well that Kids Are Cruel and keep adults in the dark by only sharing shallow hurts like skinned knees and dropped ice cream cones, until they too grow up to be oblivious, starry-eyed adults themselves.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: "Crystal" Lil, especially as her kids reach adolescence and her drug abuse slowly starts to catch up to her. It takes the form of starry-eyed absentmindedness, though.
  • Cult: Arty starts one where the members have to have their own limbs removed in order to make themselves into freaks.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Chick when he fails to save Mumpo, Ellie, and Iphy. He's so grief-stricken that he takes out most of the Binewski family, the Arturian cult, and himself in a fire.
  • Driven to Suicide: Chick again. The strain of being the official Arturian cult surgeon and the twins' caretaker slowly wears away at his emotional health, so his sisters' deaths drive him to such grief that he kills himself, and most of the carnival, in a fire.
  • The Empath: Chick is so empathic that he feels the pain of everything around him, even things that aren't even alive, to the point where he cannot eat meat and gets physically sick when another living thing is harmed.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The redheaded carnival staff are all just called "the redheads" or "Red" by the family.
  • Extreme Doormat: Oly, Oly, Oly. Poor Chick also qualifies.
  • Fat Slob: Exaggerated with Mumpo.
  • Good Cannot Comprehend Evil: Chick and Iphy, which makes them easy prey for Arty.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Arty to any sibling who might outshine him, especially the twins and Chick. Later, Oly is this to Iphy for Arty's affections. Miss Lick, Miranda's would-be benefactor, is also this to all young women more beautiful and desirable than her.
  • The Grotesque: Played straight with Oly during the 'Notes for Now' chapters, otherwise averted or inverted.
  • Groupie Brigade: Arty's got one.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: After Dr. Phyllis rejects to perform lobotomies for Arturism, Arty has her amputated and lobotomized.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Lil wanted to become a trapeze artist, until she fell and smashed her nose. She then settled on being a geek (mangling live chickens in a cage). She then married Al, and the two decided to breed their own special brand of marketable carnival freaks. She's still a little wistful about it when Al tells her story to their children, though.
  • I Just Want to Be Loved: Oly and Chick, who are both made to feel inadequate by their family for not being as "gifted" as their older siblings, are desperate to please and more likely to cater to their family's whims hoping for affection. Arty takes full advantage of this.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Subverted, as Oly and her siblings take pride in what they are and refer to other people derisively as "norms." Oly wishes she were more special, even.
    • Played straight with Miranda, who wants to have her one freak trait, her tail, removed.
  • I Love Nuclear Power: Lil takes radioactive isotopes while pregnant with Chick, which is used to explain his psychic powers.
  • Inferiority Superiority Complex: Arty eventually reveals to Oly that he's obsessed with the limelight and jealous of any siblings that might outshine him because his deformities make him different enough that he'll never fit in with norms, but not quite special enough that he can draw a crowd on his own. Without an audience, he's "just an industrial accident." His obsessive need to be more popular than all his other siblings stems from a desire to crush these insecurities.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Averted to hell and back with the Benewski siblings. Exploited by Arty for his cult.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Lil, though she's still a knock-out when her kids are very young. Over the story she slowly grows out of her looks as they reach adolescence. Definitely played straight in the "Notes For Now" sections.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Elly may be a bitch, but she's right not to like or trust Arturo; something she calls Oly and Iphy out on more than once.
  • Kids Are Cruel: The Binewski siblings.
  • Kill ’Em All
  • Lobotomy: Arty has Elly lobotomized while leaving her conjoined sister unharmed. Afterwards it becomes a standard procedure for Arturans.
  • Love Martyr: Oly is a sisterly example to Arty. No matter how much he verbally or physically abuses her, or kills, maims, or arranges the rape of their siblings, she's always eager to jump at his every whim, hoping for any scrap of attention from him. Turns out to be not-so-sisterly love after all.
  • Mad Scientist: Doctor P.
  • Meaningful Name: Chick's real name is Fortunato, "The Lucky One." It actually turns out to be an ironic name.
  • Mind over Matter: Chick can move almost anything with his mind.
  • Morality Pet: Chick is this to everybody except Arty, The Sociopath.
  • Murder-Suicide: Iphy kills Ellie for killing Mumpo, then dies soon after, as she's a half of a pair of Conjoined Twins. It's implied that Chick starts and/or accelerates the fire that kills Arty, the Arturan cultists, most of the Binewskis, and himself.
  • Offing the Offspring: Arty suggests this is what happened to their sister Apple, a vegetable of a toddler who only ever moved her eyelids, mouth, and bowels. (Then again, considering what a Consummate Liar he is and the fact that he smothered another sibling the same way Apple was smothered, whether this is true is anyone's guess.)
    • Elly kills Mumpo, her Child by Rape, after Chick brings her back from her catatonic state.
    • It turns out Arty threatened to do this to Miranda as a baby, which is the real reason Oly gave her up.
  • Old Money: Implied to be where Lil comes from, as she's described as being from a very nice, refined New England family.
  • Out with a Bang: The Bag Man, both literally and figuratively.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: The twins try (and fail) to convince their father to give one regarding their "marriage" to the Bag Man.
  • People Jars: How the Binewskis keep their "failed projects."
  • Protagonist Albino: Oly can't really be called heroic, per se; she mostly just tries to endure the terrible things she has to deal with, and she ends up killing her daughter's would-be benefactor at the end. However, she is the viewpoint character. She also deals with the issues that albinos have to deal with in real life (poor vision and extreme sensitivity to light).
  • Reality Ensues: Lil abuses drugs and radiation while pregnant to breed carnival freaks for profit. Most of them die stillborn or shortly after birth.
    • Lil and her husband also make it clear that kids who can't sell tickets have no worth in their family. As such, their children are deeply jealous and competitive of each other, since they see ticket sales as a physical measure of their own worth as human beings. This breeds Arty's sociopathy, ruthlessness, and tyranny.
  • Reed Richards Is Useless: Chick's abilities, which is occasionally lampshaded.
  • Polar Opposite Twins: Elly is an Alpha Bitch, Iphy is a Nice Girl.
  • Released to Elsewhere: Strongly implied to be the ultimate fate of Arturan cultists.
  • The Reveal: It's strongly implied throughout the novel that Oly's family made her give up Miranda because she was too "normal," and thus unprofitable as a carnival attraction. Near the end, it's revealed that her family was too broken to care by that point. It was because Miranda's own father, Arty, kept threatening to kill her that Oly gave her up to save her life.
  • Sanity Slippage: Lil slowly becomes more... absent-minded over the course of the story, as her pill-abuse slowly increases and Arty's tyranny becomes harder and harder to not notice. She loses it completely when her whole family (sans Oly) is wiped out in a fire.
  • Selective Obliviousness: Al and Lil toward Arty after he takes over the carnival.
  • Sex by Proxy: An expected side effect of being conjoined.
  • Sibling Rivalry: The Binewski children often compete for higher ticket sales. Exaggerated with Arty, who killed several of his infant siblings when he felt that they might overshadow him in the future (and tried the same with Chick). And once he rises to power with his cult, it's Iphy and Elly, his former biggest rivals, who get by far the worst of it.
  • She's Got Legs: "Crystal" Lil, her daughters Elly and Iphy, and her granddaughter Miranda. Besides Oly, the hunchback dwarf, it seems to run in the family.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The name of Oly's daughter, Miranda, is a reference to The Tempest, which the author quotes at the beginning of the book.
    • In the epilogue, Oly says in a letter to her daughter that she is "one of us", a reference to the film Freaks.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Miss Lick believes that attractive women are exploited by men and never develop their other gifts. This is why she arranges for them to be disfigured.
  • The Sociopath: Arty, so, so much. Artificial charm without sincerity, lack of remorse for any atrocities, sees people (even family) as little more than inanimate objects, sees his own fame as paramount but people as disposable tools to use and discard for his own purpose including his siblings, and own daugher...
  • Stockholm Syndrome: Iphy is implied to go through this after Arty lobotomizes Ellie, and locks Iphy up so she has no choice but to carry to term and raise the Child by Rape he forced on her. She becomes as starry-eyed and absent-minded as her mother Lil, cooing over her monstrously large baby, and is so distraught when Ellie comes to and kills Mumpho that she kills Ellie in retaliation.

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