Geeking Out

Freak Dolls, Fan Art, and a Family Tree: A New Exhibit Digs into Geek Love

Why did Katherine Dunn’s novel develop such a devoted cult following? A Lewis & Clark show could have the answers.

By Rebecca Jacobson March 30, 2017

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The exhibit includes fan-made dolls based on Geek Love characters. Left and center are two versions of Arty, who has flippers for limbs, while the creature on the right is Mumpo, the enormous baby (26 pounds!) birthed by the novel’s Siamese twins.

Few books inspire responses quite like Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. When the Portland writer, who died last May, published her bizarro masterwork in 1989, it attracted plenty of critical and commercial success—it was a finalist for the National Book Award and a bestseller. But it also quickly grew into a cult classic, with a fervent following whose love for the book has scarcely diminished over the years.

And now, the novel—the story of a circus family that decides to spawn a brood of freaks—is the subject of a new exhibition at Lewis & Clark College, which received Dunn’s collection after her death. The show, The Horror of Normalcy, includes some things you might expect: Dunn’s handwritten drafts and notes; translated copies of the novel; correspondence with fellow Portlanders Chuck Palahniuk and Walt Curtis (“I apologize if I seemed a little ‘boorish’ at the Satyricon last night,” the latter writes); an elaborate family tree charting Geek Love’s characters and their eccentricities (Maple is a “blob with no bones”; Miranda is “physically normal except for short curly tail”).

But it also contains some less expected items—namely, some very loving, very weird fan art, from illustrated scenes of the novel to freaky-looking handmade dolls.

“I struggle a little bit to understand the cultish enthusiasm,” admits Mike Mirabile, an assistant professor of English who co-curated the exhibit with student Sydney Owada. “But just the phenomenon itself is fascinating to me. A book really has to touch a chord to get that kind of response.”

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Geek Love, globally adored—left and right are Italian translations, while the center copy is a British edition.

Random readers weren't the only ones reacting so eagerly. The exhibit includes a typewritten letter from legendary editor Gordon Lish (who calls Dunn “fucking sensational”), and a handwritten note from American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis (who declares Geek Love “completely awesome”).

Dunn’s own drafts, all on lined paper, give a peek into her writing process. “There’s a huge amount of revision in Geek Love,” says Hannah Crummé, head of special collections. “She adds a lot of description on a pretty minute level—she’ll add six or seven adjectives per page.”

Her handwriting, too, has a “calligraphic impulse,” Mirabile says. Dunn herself describes it as “onomatopoetic.”

“That’s a crazy thing to say if you think about it,” Crummé says, “but it makes her drafts all the more interesting. It’s clear Dunn thinks her handwriting conveys some added meaning.”

This exhibit features just a fraction of what Dunn bequeathed to Lewis & Clark. The college will use other materials in creative writing classes to study the drafting process, as it does with its collection of poet William Stafford. The Dunn collection also includes drafts of her first two novels, Attic and Truck, research and drafts of her Willamette Week work (both her articles about boxing and her advice column), and rejected or unfinished Geek Love screenplays.

But perhaps the hottest item in the collection? Drafts of the unfinished follow-up to Geek Love, The Cut Man, a boxing saga Dunn announced in 1989 and never published. Sorry, Dunn fans: those files are currently closed.

The Horror of Normalcy: Katherine Dunn, Geek Love, and Cult Literature

Lewis & Clark College's Watzek Library, April 4–August, FREE

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