The new exhibit in Watzek Library on the award-winning author Katherine Dunn is anything but ordinary, which is probably how Dunn would have wanted it to be. Dunn’s career-starting novel Geek Love, published in 1989, is centered around Portland and more specifically a nostalgia for an older, grittier Portland that continues to disappear as the city becomes increasingly gentrified. The exhibit portrays Dunn’s fascination with the strange subcultures that surround the city. One of the main attractions of the exhibit includes a digital display where people can locate places in the book on a map of Portland.
Visiting Assistant Professor of English Michael Mirabile, who works with 20th century American fiction, provided historical contexts to situate some of the items in the exhibit and looked at Geek Love as an example of “cult fiction.”
“In particular, since the novel kind of deals with things that are sort of outside the narrow definition of what we would call normality, the title that we put over the exhibit as a whole was ‘The Horror of Normalcy,’” Mirabile said. “And I think Portland represented a resistance against mainstream culture to [Dunn].”
The novel follows a family who experiments with drugs to create their own “freak show” of specially modified children. Dunn’s story embraces the timeless idea that it’s okay not to fit in, which appealed to many younger readers in the late ’80s and ’90s. In fact, Geek Love inspired an intense response from some its readers. Mirabile describes this reader response as cult-like devotion that makes the novel a cult classic.
“I think [cult fiction] is more in terms of how the works are received by the audience,” Mirabile said. “So it seems as though there sort of develops an intense readership around certain works of fiction.”
The exhibit showcases a large amount of material evidence of cult-like responses, such as the creepy baby dolls that readers sent to Dunn which are characters from the novel. There’s also a lot of artwork, fanfiction and letters in the exhibit that Dunn preserved from her readers.
“It includes a lot of fan mail that tells Dunn how important the novel was to individual readers—from both random readers and authors with whom she worked,” Crummé said. “A big component of the cult following was writers who thought Katherine Dunn’s novel was sort of innovative and spoke to them.”
Some of these writers included Brett East Ellis, author of American Psycho and Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club. The collection is unique because it not only explores the “cult fiction” aspect of the novel, but also Dunn’s correspondence, other facets of Dunn’s life and her writing process through the multiple handwritten drafts of Geek Love.
Certainly, this exhibit will appeal to aspiring authors as it gives a rare glimpse into the life of a developing writer. Archives Assistant and English major Sydney Owada ’19 also worked closely with Crummé to select objects for the exhibit and worked on captions. She notes that the collection provides an interesting look at Dunn’s progression as an author.
“It shows her prewriting process, her writing process and her fan response which is something you don’t usually get in an archive,” Owada said. “You can really go in depth into a study. You can’t usually get to read a book and get to see the drafts and the letters that make the draft the final thing.”
With the copious amount of materials in the Katherine Dunn Collection regarding her writing process and her life, visitors of the exhibit can gather an overall sense of the novel and draw on Dunn’s inspirations that led to the publishing of Geek Love.