“I have been a believer in the magic of language since, at a very early age, I discovered that some words got me into trouble and others got me out.”
It’s her birthday today.
In 2009, a news story emerged from the Pacific Northwest that author Katherine Dunn, known mainly for her 1989 novel Geek Love, had fought off a mugging attempt by slapping the thief in the face, and kicking the thief in the shins. Katherine Dunn was 64 at the time, and the mugger was mid-20s. The image was so pleasing. Any time I heard news of “Katherine Dunn”, I felt a surge of adrenaline and excitement, and this story made me think: “Of course. Of course she would make the news for something like that.”
The fact that she fought back was not a surprise, since Katherine Dunn spent the majority of her life covering boxing as a sports journalist. She also trained as a boxer. She had been a bartender, a waitress, a stripper, and she spent most of her time around boxers and tough guys. So, you know, she was not going to just let some asshole take her purse without a fight.
In 2010, Dunn gave an interview to the Paris Review. A couple of comments I love:
Twenty years is a long time for something to gel, what has happened?
I don’t want to be glib here, but twenty years worth of life and work happened. Some might say I’m right on schedule by my lights.
Is being a woman advantageous or disadvantageous for ringside reporting?
Thirty years ago it was an advantage because at most fights the lines to the women’s restroom were short.
When I got the news, in 2016, that Dunn died at the age of 70, I sat staring at the computer screen trying to think of what to say. Katherine Dunn is so meaningful to me, and Geek Love was so important that any words I say will just sound melodramatic or empty. I have written about Geek Love over the years, as it turns out, here on my site, but most of it is inarticulate, and most of it just describes my reaction after I came to the last sentence. (I burst into sobs.) Because of this reaction, Geek Love is my #1 most MEMORABLE reading experience. The book removed my blinders: I saw my life and its falsities, its wrongness. My reaction was the loss of Illusion and the belief in said Illusions. I could not put any of this into words at the time.
The public mourning over her death – among her fans – was as intense as the passing of Prince. It’s not as huge a population, but it’s as devoted. My friend Mitchell said, “I see Olympia everywhere.” I do too. People who have read it say they are “haunted” by it. You never see the world in quite the same way again. Because Dunn didn’t write many novels, and the novels she did write came 20 years apart, there’s a mystique around her. Geek Love exploded like a bomb into the year 1989. And then … silence. Of course she WASN’T silent. She traveled around covering boxing matches. This is not the “norm” for someone who writes a book like Geek Love. Her choices made it all even better: Geek Love was not a book like other books, and so it was perfect that the author would not be like other authors. The original edition of Geek Love included no author photo. You couldn’t “attach” anything to her, or stare at her face. All you had was her voice and the characters. It was perfect having no idea what she looked like. And because the characters in Geek Love are “freaks” and “geeks” on the sideshow circuit, and because it’s a first-person narration, it made you wonder … We all talked about who we imagined her to be all the time.
Geek Love started the process of me “waking up” to the realization I was living the wrong life. I was young, too. 22, 23? I was following a path not MINE. The path I was on looked like the path of everyone around me and so I couldn’t say what was wrong with it, and I felt I was being ungrateful or weird in feeling SUCH a strong REJECTION of the expected path. I suppose you could say: “Well, Sheila, you were just dating the wrong person. Maybe it would have felt right with another man.” I think the life I’ve lived since then shows that as a lie, the comforting lie the “normals” tell the “weirdos” and “geeks”. Blah blah, we are all special, everyone is different, even people in white-picket-fence houses have problems. Sure. But there’s “different” and then there’s DIFFERENT. The mainstream is so powerful the culture absorbs it by osmosis. Only those outside the mainstream recognize it as The Truman Show. The norm is not the “norm” for all of us. What is freeing to you is a prison to me. This is a difficult truth, an unwelcome truth to some (very strange: why does me “opting out” of what you have accepted make YOU feel defensive?), and terrifying if you’re 22 years old and you don’t know what’s on the other side of the wall blocking in your fake world. What will life look like if you don’t have job/spouse/kids? All I know is is I was young (21, 22), and my relationship was a torment (especially because I couldn’t verbalize what was wrong). In actuality, I was holding the brass ring of the culture, especially for young women. A nice responsible boyfriend, a cute apartment, marching towards marriage, yay! I had it! And I hated it. (When I saw and reviewed The Lobster, which lampoons/indicts all these assumptions – I felt a grim sort of vindication.)
Geek Love was a wake-up call. All along I thought something was wrong with ME, like why did I so vehemently not want the supposed awesomeness of what I HAD, which was: a relationship with a nice handsome responsible boyfriend, vacations and camping trips, long-term plans, even a sweet marriage proposal (which I said “No” to … I still don’t know where I found the balls to refuse. AND we were on a “romantic” vacation when I refused. AND we kept “going out” after that? Weird.) Geek Love said: “Not only CAN you say No to this version of life, you HAVE to say No to it.” (These thoughts weren’t even in my head at the time, but the extreme reaction I had to the novel was eloquent: in retrospect it is so obvious what was going on.)
From Geek Love:
Then there are those who feel their own strangeness and are terrified by it. They struggle toward normalcy. They suffer to exactly that degree that they are unable to appear normal to others, or to convince themselves that their aberration does not exist. These are true freaks, who appear, almost always, conventional and dull.
I read Geek Love years ago when I was living in Philadelphia and quietly having a nervous breakdown (which didn’t show to the outside world). I was sitting on my front porch when I finished it. We lived in Mt. Airy, surrounded by forest preserves and mountain bike trails, a lushness of green only twenty minutes outside the city proper. Trees hung over the porch, trees pressed up against our house on all sides, the street was misty and quiet. A big mug of cold coffee sat next to me. The coffee was hot when I came out onto the porch but I was near the end of the book and so I sat there reading, struck dumb by the ending, not taking one sip from the cup next to me. At the last sentence of the book, I burst into tears. This has only happened to me a couple of times at the end of a book. Sometimes I’ll mist up … or be moved in an intellectual way … but bursting into sobs? Geek Love pierced through the armor of denial erected to shield me from how depressed I was, how sad, how lonely, and it wasn’t just about me, and what I was going through … it was about Olympia and Arturo and the unforgettable cast of characters. Geek Love is a book about love (obviously), but it’s also about flaws, and freaks (literal and emotional), and emotional blackmail twisting a soul already hardened by the world’s rejection. Our outer surface so rarely reflects our inner worlds. Inside we may be pure. Inside we keen with love, love burning so hot it is indistinguishable from pain.
My boyfriend came back from his run and found me pacing, tears streaming down my face.
I have not read it again. Every time think “I should re-read Geek Love” something in me cringes back from the experience I know I will have.
Those of us who have read the book are a strange little club. It’s a litmus test. If someone says, “I loved Geek Love” … it’s a secret password. It says something – maybe even everything – about who you are. One of the falling-in-love moments I had with the the guy who at this point I can say was my great lost love – was during an early “what books do you love” conversation. I said, casually, “I don’t think I’ve ever cried harder when a book ended than when I finished Geek Love.” He looked at me as though I struck him. He seriously did a double-take. He didn’t say anything for a while. He wasn’t a big “let me share with you every thought that goes through my head” type of guy. The conversation went on. A couple of people came over and joined us, interrupting our tete a tete, and he said to me, privately, underneath the chatter of the others, “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone else who has read that book.”
It meant something to him. It meant something about who I was.
Now, outside all of this personal stuff:
Geek Love‘s truths are not easy to swallow. There is a price to pay for being a “geek.” For the characters in the book, there is no other way. They are a circus sideshow family. They all have physical deformities. It would be impossible to make into a film (although Mitchell said, after he read it back in the day, that he could see it done as an animated film, which I think is a brilliant idea). If you can make it past the grisly and gruesome opening chapter, you will be rewarded beyond compare. It is redemptive, but devastating. It is about withstanding loss. White-knuckling it. It is about memories so terrible they shatter life, leaving only pieces, fragments. Nothing can be put back together. The lie – and it is a lie, a very sinister lie – is that scattered pieces CAN be put back together. This lie (and it’s everywhere) is what makes people feel like “freaks”, or “geeks.” This lie is part of what drives people to suicide, addiction, anti-social behavior: there is pressure to conform, and pressure to “put yourself together,” there is an assumption that putting yourself together is possible. Maybe its possible for SOME people but it is NOT possible for others. There will always be those on the “inside,” and those on the “outside.” Katherine Dunn’s book acknowledges this. While such a harrowing experience as Geek Love could not really be called a “celebration,” it is, in the end, a celebration. There is a price to be paid. Nothing is free.
Katherine Dunn de-stabilizes the entire concept of “mainstream.”
Geek Love had a powerful impact – not just on me personally, but on a generation of writers. It was a “sui generis” book and Katherine Dunn was a sui generis writer, especially when you consider the weirdness of how she did not move into the literary mainstream in any way whatsoever afterwards. She didn’t play the game like other authors played it. She didn’t follow up with another novel, and then another, doing writing conferences, and short story collections, and a memoir (God, I wish she wrote a memoir).
The conventional, the expected, wasn’t her. She wrote Geek Love and then vanished from the mainstream literary scene.
There are a couple of collections of her boxing writing: One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing, and, in collaboration with photographer Jim Lommasson, Shadow Boxers: Sweat, Sacrifice & the Will to Survive in American Boxing Gyms, which won the 2004 Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Prize. There were other novels too: Attic, Truck. Plus the fascinating Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective’s Scrapbook.
In a conformist society, Katherine Dunn was an outlaw and renegade. You don’t realize how out of the ordinary it is until someone comes along and actually does it. There is no “set” path to being a writer. However, in today’s world of MFA writing programs and writers’ workshops churning out young writers who all sound alike, having Dunn emerge from (seemingly) out of nowhere, with a book unlike anything else, putting every other book around it to shame … is a moment of triumph for our culture. Sometimes things work out. Sometimes something is SO good, and SO itself
1. it cannot be compared to anything else and
2. its impact cannot be denied or explained away or ignored. Geek Love felt inevitable once it arrived, but nothing is inevitable. Katherine Dunn had to dream it up. She had to sit down and write it.
I look at the picture of her above and think: “She had Geek Love in her? WHERE did it come from?”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, although the stories of why she wrote it are fascinating (and important for writers to try to absorb). Where do ideas come from? is the question. What really matters is Geek Love is here now, and it is ours. It will impact anyone who discovers it for generations to come. Once you’ve read it, life is unimaginable without it. I can count such books on one hand.