I think all writers–all readers, and most every writer I know is a reader first–has those handful of authors that they have a specific fascination with. Those writers that we encountered at a point where their work became part of us, their voices a promise of what was possible with words. Katherine Dunn was a writer like that for me. I first read her in high school. I can’t remember why I picked up Geek Love. Was it because of my latent love of the circus, already there because of the one-ring circus that spent a week or two outside my elementary school and how immediately Philippe Petit charmed me during an earlyish Letterman appearance? Was I just browsing at the bookstore, sold by the cover? Did Sassy Magazine recommend it? That’s the way I discovered a lot of things.
I tend to think it was probably a serendipitous bookstore pick, though, because I tend to have firmer memories of books being recommended by friends or certain media or placed in my hands from that period. And I would have been susceptible not just to the cover, but to the National Book Award nominated tag. However it made its way into my hands, it was this edition.
To say I loved (LOVE) this book is an understatement of the highest order. Katherine Dunn became an immediate obsession of mine. I read her first two books–Truck and Attic–and was comforted even as a young writer by how they were interesting, but not the works of genius that Geek Love had ascended to. And then, at my first day job, where I sat at a desk at least some of the time (in the Governor’s Office, natch) I took up searching for her name and discovered that a great deal of her regular writing–columns on boxing and movies–were ending up online. I followed her byline like a religion for years afterward. I was one of the gleeful when she popped up in the news for having beaten off an attacker in a Whole Foods parking lot several years back, because of course she’d taken up boxing as an adult. I ended up talking with a former sales rep for Knopf at a party in Decatur and the book came up and I learned the first edition had an added leg on the famous borzoi logo (confirmed last night, so it’s wonderful and true). I felt the same excitement everyone did when the Paris Review editor coaxed that excerpt of The Cut Man from her; we might finally get a new Katherine Dunn novel. I didn’t care what it was about.
We may still yet get it–but no matter what, it’s a truly sad thing that Katherine Dunn is no longer here with us. The world was a better, stranger place with her in it. I say that purely as a fan; I know people who knew her, and I offer all of her friends and family my greatest sympathies. A former Clarion student of hers, Jessica Reisman, described her personality to me like this on twitter last night: “Charming and profane in equal measure, dry, and so so smart.” Which is exactly how I’d always imagined her.
One perfect, rich, odd book that spoke to the freak in so many of us is a big legacy to leave behind. My first thought last night (after sorrow) was that it’s been far too long since I’ve read Geek Love and that we really should have some sort of group reading In Memoriam. So let’s get our books in the next couple of weeks and read or reread it together during June, okay? I can host posts here and we can use twitter OR I’m happy to set up a Goodreads group; if anyone has strong feelings either way, drop them in the comments.