Some novels grow so popular that they overwhelm a writer’s career. Like one jagged peak in a range of well-proportioned hills, the novel towers over the author’s other books and holds them in shadow. For Katherine Dunn, Geek Love (1989) is that novel. The epic saga of the Binewskis, a family of circus freaks, and the tragic fate of their traveling sideshow, Geek Love was a finalist for the National Book Award and has since inspired cultish devotion (just Google “Geek Love tattoos”). It has sold more than 475,000 copies in the United States alone.
In championing weirdness over “the horror of normalcy,” the novel became scripture to readers on the margins of the mainstream, attracting such high-profile admirers as Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Dunn grafted vaudeville vernacular onto a cool classicism, a prose style at once effortless and extravagant. And in Geek Love’s fun-house mirror, conventional hierarchies of beauty and worth are upended—an alluring inversion for legions of readers to whom the Binewskis are folk heroes. Dunn once said her ambition was “to write something that will punch out through time,” and almost 30 years on, Geek Love does exactly that.
A success of such magnitude guarantees posterity, but it also threatens to make Dunn, who died in 2016 at the age of 70, seem like a narrower artist than she was. Lost in the Geek Love phenomenon were the two novels that Dunn had published some 20 years earlier, which have struggled to remain in print. “Most people didn’t even know I’d ever written anything else,” Dunn recalled in 2009. Now, with the reissue of Attic (1970), her astonishing debut, readers have a chance to see Katherine Dunn not only as Geek Love’s author, but as an expansive novelist giving voice to American estrangement.