Katherine Dunn has died; the ‘Geek Love’ author once took the world by storm

Katherine Dunn attends the Festival of Literature on June 3, 2008.
(Elisabetta Villa / Getty Images)

Katherine Dunn, famous for her 1989 novel “Geek Love,” died Thursday at home in Portland, Ore., her son told Willamette Weekly. Dunn, 70, died from complications from lung cancer.

The book, which told the story of a house full of circus sideshow performers, was a finalist for the National Book Award and became a bestseller. Dunn also wrote nonfiction, particularly about boxing, but “Geek Love,” a cult classic, remains her most widely read book.

In April 1989, reporter Ann Japenga spent time with Dunn in Portland as the book was making its debut and wrote about the experience for the Los Angeles Times. This is that story:


PORTLAND, Ore. -- Miranda’s preoccupation with fat men and carnival freaks has something to do with her roots. Her mama was an albino hunchback dwarf and her papa a legless, armless act billed as “Arty the Aqua Boy.”

A reasonable enough explanation for an obsession. But what, then, is novelist Katherine Dunn’s reason for creating this improbable family?

Dunn is the author of “Geek Love”--a book that its publisher, Knopf, is promoting as “an unmistakable literary event” akin to the debut of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

As for a reason, the 43-year-old Portland author describes her vision as “a peek over the edge.”

As Dunn’s tale goes, Aloysius Binewski, proprietor of a traveling circus called Binewski’s Fabulon, gets the notion to breed mutant children who will perform as sideshow freaks. His theory is that, along with boosting business, he will be bestowing upon his children “the inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves.”

So Al’s wife Crystal Lil, a former geek (a carnival performer of grotesque acts such as biting the heads off live chickens), ingests cocaine, arsenic, insecticides and radioisotopes in the effort to radicalize her genes.


The resulting babies include Arty, the child with flippers in place of arms and legs, a pair of piano-playing Siamese twins, and Olympia, the albino hunchback dwarf who narrates the story. Papa Al’s failed experiments end up on display at the carnival, floating in jars.

In this clan, defects are looked upon as “specialties.” The stranger you look, the more you’re loved.

Knopf’s new editor-in-chief at the time the manuscript was submitted, Sonny Mehta, reportedly loved the book, as did everyone there from editors to designers, senior vice president Jane Friedman said. “The book is a literary book. Katherine Dunn is a literary writer with commercial overtones. Everybody is noting its originality,” Friedman said. “It’s selling out nicely.”

The book’s first run of 20,000, with an additional 3,500 printed, is a “significant” number for what is essentially a first novel, Friedman said. (Dunn’s first two novels--”Attic” and “Truck”--were written almost 20 years ago, so “Geek Love” is like starting over.)

Knopf packaged “Geek Love” with a fittingly audacious cover of fluorescent orange. To celebrate the mutation theme, the publishing company redesigned its Borzoi logo so that the wolfhound on the spine of the book has three front legs.

Dressed all in white on the day of a recent interview, Dunn was quick to offer a generous, toothy smile and immediately set to rest any fears that she might be as strange a person as the world view her novel might suggest.

She likes to roll her own cigarettes while talking sports or swapping stories. Her pals--whom she depends on for rides because she doesn’t drive--are mostly striving Portland area writers who live with the sense they are always “one case of the flu away from eviction.”

That precarious existence is over for Dunn since Knopf has paid her a substantial advance on her next novel. “She is now, for the first time in her life, financially secure,” said her friend Mark Zusman, editor of Portland’s Willamette Week newspaper, where Dunn writes an advice column. She is also a boxing columnist for the Associated Press.

Her office is furnished with the requisite jammed bookshelves. There are entire rows devoted to boxing, with volume after volume of the boxing yearbook, The Ring.

The bathroom is adorned with framed black-and-white boxing stills; and Dunn keeps a portrait of the young Joe Louis propped on her typewriter.

“Boxing is a formal, ritualized creation of crisis,” the author once told an interviewer. From boxing, she said, she learned that conflict--not love or harmony--is actually the “fundamental focus of our species.”

Dunn said she got the idea for “Geek Love” in 1979 while she was walking in the experimental rose gardens in Portland. Admiring the hybrid roses, she conceived Papa Al and his hybrid children.

She was thinking about her son at the time and the whole issue of “the things we do to our children--most of the evil in the world is not done with bad intentions but with the best intentions ever,” she said.

Dunn said “Geek Love” also reflects her concerns with “the volcanic and terrifying possibilities of genetic mutation and the whole issue of the cult.” (In the book, flipper-boy Arty starts a cult in which converts have their arms and legs amputated so they can become more like their leader.)

At first, Dunn was shocked by her own terrifying characters. Now and then she’d read a passage to her son, who invariably shook his head and responded: “Weird.”

Gradually, however, the Binewski carnival family no longer seemed bizarre to Dunn. Writing a novel is a kind of “private autism,” she said--the further she went with the book, the more the Binewskis’ world became the norm.

Her ‘Masterworks’

It was only upon completing the longhand manuscript and turning it over to the typist that Dunn was reminded that not everyone was going to see Arty and the others as “magnificent masterworks” of humanity, as she and Papa Al Binewski did.

“My typist was just horrified by it,” she said.

At no time, however, did Dunn worry about what the world would think of her vision. “It was a continual struggle with my own cowardice and fear, but not about what people would think,” she said. “For me, it was just very scary stuff to be dealt with.”

Dunn’s choice of themes might be expected to stimulate talk in the disabled community; carnival freak shows are, after all, regarded as “the pornography of disability,” said Robert Bogdan, a Syracuse University professor of sociology and special education. Bogdan, who has written a book on freak shows, said such revues were common in this country until about 1940, but mostly died out in recent decades because they were seen as being demeaning to the disabled.

‘The Human Truth’

Dunn said she didn’t think about disability per se while writing the book. “I never thought of it as an issue. I thought if I just told the truth, the human truth, it’d be the truth for everyone.”

But then, after a public reading from the novel, Dunn saw two people in wheelchairs approaching the stage and had a moment’s worry that she’d offended them. The scene she read was one where Olympia, the hunchback, is dragged onto the stage and stripped at a club specializing in deformed dancers.

But, instead of confronting her, Dunn said, the two from the audience grabbed her hands and began thanking her for the reading.

Not everyone who is physically different has received the book with such gratitude, however. Paul Longmore, a Los Angeles historian who is researching images of disability in the arts, said that “very often in serious literature, disability is used as a metaphor for something else.” In many cases, he said, disability equals villainy.

Vicious Villain

And in the case of “Geek Love,” he said, “Arty is one of the most vicious disabled villains I’ve run across.”

The trend of using disabled characters as symbols “certainly isn’t helpful at all (to disabled people) and it also reflects that we’re not really regarded as fully human,” he said. “People who write this way don’t know us as human beings.”

Carol Gill, a Sherman Oaks clinical psychologist who uses a wheelchair due to polio, expressed a combination of admiration and dismay at the workings of Dunn’s imagination.

“She (Dunn) articulated aspects of our experience better than we have ourselves,” Gill said. And Dunn’s understanding of the loathing “norms” can feel for “freaks” was “right on.”

Equally true to the disabled experience, Gill said, was the passage in which hunchbacked Olympia talks about how easily strangers confess to her: “They go too far because I am one listener who is in no position to judge or find fault.”

Grotesque Details

Yet, Gill is bothered by the way in which Dunn lingers insistently on the more vivid and grotesque details of physical deformity.

She likens Dunn, in this, to a character in “Geek Love.” The character, Miss Lick, is a hobbyist, a term for people who have an erotic interest in people with deformities.

“I think the author herself practices a sort of hobby-ism,” Gill said. “In a way she can be accused of having a sort of hobbyist interest in disability.

“She may be playing and dabbling with us a bit,” Gill said. “But in her fascination, she has noticed some truthful and important things.”

Dunn said she had no personal experience with freak shows or carnivals, nor did she research them for her book.

Creative Grandeur

“But I suspect any of us can imagine it (being an outsider),” she said. “Most of us at least some of the time in our life have that feeling.”

Once in a while, in the eight years it took to complete “Geek Love,” Dunn said she had moments of creative grandeur in which “I’d flop around on the floor convinced I was God.

“But most of the time I thought I’d Xerox the book and hand it out to my friends,” she said. She said she never expected the book to enjoy more than “a little, tiny seeping life.”

Despite all the interviews she’s been doing lately, Dunn has still not quite gotten used to the idea that her publisher is determined that this book will have a big, bold life.