Brow Beat

Geek Love Author Katherine Dunn Dies at 70

Katherine Dunn, Rome, 2008. 

Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images

Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love was a novel that immediately announced itself as something uncommon and unique. You could tell from its title; you could tell from the bold cover its publisher, Knopf, gave it; and you could tell from its opening paragraph:

“When your mama was a geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing. ‘Spread your lips, sweet Lil,’ they’d cluck, ‘and show us your choppers!’ ”

What even was this? For the readers who have discovered Geek Love in the years since its publication in 1989, oddballs all, the novel serves as a kind of secret handshake. Find the book on a shelf in someone’s bedroom, duplex, dorm room, basement apartment, with that Chip Kidd–designed five-legged borzoi on the spine, and you’d know: Oh, these are my people.*

Dunn, who died May 11 at her home in Portland of complications from lung cancer, wrote her third novel Geek Love while raising a son on her own and writing a column for Willamette Week. It was editor Sonny Mehta’s first acquisition at Knopf; the cover Kidd designed launched his career; the novel was nominated for the National Book Award and has become a cult classic, never going out of print. (Caitlin Roper wrote a very thorough history of the book for its 25th anniversary in 2014.)

Its success has to do not only with its oddness but its beauty. Dunn’s prose, inimitably syncopated, tells the story of the Binewskis, traveling carnies Al and Crystal Lil, who strive to create—through drugs and radiation—gloriously mutated children to carry on the family business. It sounds grotesque, and the revulsion with which some readers reject its premise only heightens the pleasure of devotees who know that the book’s freaks and geeks serve a rich and satisfying story of familial love, faith, and devotion. Filmmakers as varied as Tim Burton, the Wachowskis, Henry Selick, and Night Court star Harry Anderson have tried to make it into a film; none have succeeded.

In addition to publishing two earlier, more experimental novels, Dunn also wrote enthusiastically and energetically about boxing for decades. (Some of her writing on the sport is collected in One Ring Circus.) I first made her acquaintance a year ago, when I sent her a fan letter and asked if she wanted to write about the upcoming Manny Pacquaio–Floyd Mayweather bout. The sharp and funny demurral she sent made for a better fight preview than any I could have actually published:

You are so right to address this fight in the magazine. It’s a boxing classic from the get-go, and should be an interesting fight. But it’s more than that. It’s the first boxing match ever to earn a huge and scholarly Wikipedia entry before it takes place. For much of the media and some substantial chunks of population, it’s become a kind of cultural thermometer. The long history of failed negotiations has spawned an unusual bitterness in reporters and in a lot of fans. Now, with the date set, there’s a growing fury that two weeks before the fight there are still no tickets available. The blame for this, as for the negotiating delays in the past, has fallen on the Mayweather camp. That’s in keeping with Floyd’s Bad Guy role, and further bolsters Manny’s Good Guy persona.

But barring cataclysm—by which I mean serious injury or death to one of the participants—the current significance of this fight ends with the first bell. All its meaning now is in the anticipation. The debates, the spewing feuds, the lofty prognostications and the omen reading—that’s where our energy converges. The fans and the reporters perform for each other and in opposition to each other. This is the high time for opinioneers. The fight itself dispels all that with an icy hose. It may be beautiful or ugly, thrilling or tedious, ridiculous or profound, but it will be real. All the blather—and there are mountains of it—is irrelevant in the face of that hard simplicity. The blather afterwards will be different, though not necessarily wiser.

Of course that’s only if the fight actually takes place. This being boxing—the archaic, anarchistic crocodile zone—you could still get Vegas odds either way on whether it will even happen.

Me, I don’t have anything new or fresh to add to the palaver. So, Dan, I’m going to sit this one out and enjoy the spectacle.

Thursday evening, upon hearing of her death, I opened my old copy of Geek Love and read again her description of the residents of the Chute, the Binewski family shrine where Crystal Lil keeps Al’s failed attempts at sideshow children floating in jars. Leona the Lizard Girl. Clifford, who looks like “a lasagna pan full of exposed organs with a monkey head.” Janus with his “sweet sleeping face” and then, at the base of his spine, his other head, “equally round and perfect, with matching hair.” “I wondered how the two would have gotten along if Janus had lived,” our narrator, hunchbacked Oly, says. “Probably the top head would have controlled everything and made his poor little butt-brother miserable.”

I thought back to the day I first read this passage, more than 20 years ago, sitting alone at a table in the dining hall in a new college, waiting for somebody to walk past and tell me they knew that book and they loved it too. Eventually someone did, and we became friends. I’ve vividly remembered those babies in those jars ever since—but I also remember that every morning, Crystal Lil would come into the Chute and lovingly clean her babies’ jars off with a cloth. “Once or twice,” Dunn wrote, “I saw her cry as she pressed her forehead against the glass and crooned.”

The final Dunn writing to appear in print, as far as I can tell, was an essay about Leonard Gardner’s novel Fat City I was immeasurably proud to edit for the Slate Book Review. But I hope that’s not the last we’ll see. Sonny Mehta bought Dunn’s follow-up to Geek Love for $175,000. That was in 1989, and the book’s never been published. A wondrous excerpt appeared in the Paris Review six years ago, and I harbor hope that Dunn’s husband and son will, once their grief has lessened, consider revealing that long-gestating work to the world. No matter how unshapely or ungainly it may be, I know I’ll love it.

*Correction, May 13, 2016: This post misstated the number of legs on the borzoi colophon Chip Kidd designed for Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. It has five legs, not three.