Columns > Published on October 21st, 2011

Book Brawl: Geek Love vs. Water for Elephants

In Book Brawl, two books that are somehow related will get in the ring and fight it out for the coveted honor of being declared literary champion. Two books enter. One book leaves.

This month, our contenders are circus life novels Geek Love (Katherine Dunn, 1983) and Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen, 2006). Who shall emerge victorious? This is so exciting!

Round One: By Any Other Name

The title Geek Love is direct and evocative in its simplicity. The word “geek” refers to a carnival performer, specifically one whose trade is to bite the heads off chickens. That’s some serious business. It also refers to the outcast nature of the Binewski family, who must rely on each other in their alienation. It’s a solid title, is what I’m saying.

Water for Elephants is a lovely title, a poetic turn of phrase. It refers to the fact that, well, elephants need water. And…the circus employees must bring it to them. So, not a lot of layers there, really.

Round One goes to…Geek Love!

Round Two: A Book By Its Cover

'Geek Love' by Katherine Dunn

Stark and uncompromising, with its blazing hue and eccentric font, the Geek Love cover is as attention-grabbing as any accomplished carnival barker.

'Water For Elephants' by Sara Gruen

Like the title, the cover for Water for Elephants is pretty and simple, but far from earth-shattering. It’s nice, you know? Cute.

Round Two goes to…Geek Love!

Round Three: Does The Premise Have Promise?

Geek Love tells the story of the Binewski family, who travel in a carnival run by patriarch Al and his wife Lil. Due to dwindling finances, Al and Lil decide to generate their own circus freaks by experimenting with dangerous drug combinations during Lil’s pregnancies. Their experiments work scarily well, resulting in a passel of weird-ass brats: megalomaniac flipper boy Arty, gorgeous Siamese twins Iphy and Elly, powerfully telekinetic Chick, and hunchbacked albino dwarf Oly, the protagonist and narrator of the novel. Arty’s Machiavellian tendencies jeopardize the rest of the family as Oly only tries to survive with some semblance of normalcy. How compelling is that premise?!

Water for Elephants is about vet student Jacob Jankowski, who drops out of Cornell during the Depression due to the untimely death of his parents. He joins the Benzini Brothers Circus as a caretaker to the animals and quickly falls for the star performer Marlena, who is married to the abusive head trainer, August. Jacob finds himself immersed in a peculiar friendship with Marlena and August that is strained when August brings an elephant to the circus and mistreats her in his desperate desire to bring in the crowds. Jacob and Marlena bond with and over Rosie the Elephant as August’s schizophrenic tendencies are dangerously revealed. Pretty cool, right? Just not quite as cool as Geek Love

Round Three goes to…Geek Love!

Round Four: A Hero You Can Root For

Oly, Geek Love’s hunchbacked albino dwarf, is prized by the circus audiences that flock to see her, but she yearns for the stability of a nurturing home life and normal family. Oly is flawed in that she only defines herself by her familial relations, never seeing the worth that exists within her as herself. But she’s also wonderful because she is not ashamed of who she is. She lets that freak flag fly without thinking twice about it, because being a freak is all she knows.

Jacob, the circus vet in Water for Elephants, is a big, hot bundle of bravery and integrity. Throughout the novel he only does what he thinks is right and makes a stand for his beliefs regardless of the consequences, and he succeeds in life and love as a reward. Jacob’s incorruptible principles make him admirable, if not terribly interesting.

Round Four goes to…Geek Love!

Round Five: Diabolical Villainy

Arturo, the megalomanical, flippered brother of Oly, creates his own cult of followers who willingly dismember themselves to be like him. Arty is a terrifyingly complex villain. His unscrupulous cunning and desperate need for power create dangerous tensions among the Binewskis and casualties among his followers, but his true motivation is for love and acceptance, like any of us.

August, the abusive head trainer in Water for Elephants, is treacherously charming and completely insane. He is a paranoid schizophrenic who takes his rages out on innocent circus animals and his wife, and he rules the circus with an iron fist. Animal-beating and wife-pummeling make for some good villainy, for sure. But no one’s really dismembering themselves at his behest, so...

Round Five goes to…Geek Love!

Round Six: The Hot Parts

Yeah, there are seriously no hot parts in this book. Oly’s daughter Miranda is conceived through a combination of telekinesis and incest that requires no physical contact whatsoever, and that weird business is just about all you get for romance in Geek Love.

Jacob and Marlena’s relationship boasts the kind of chemistry that comes with the best star-crossed lovers. As August does everything he can to keep them apart, their inevitable coupling is smoking hot and definitely earned.

Round Six goes to…Water for Elephants!

Round Seven: What A Lovely Language

The language in Geek Love is austere, often brutal but never less than poetic. Oly hungers eloquently for the normalcy of a routine home life and yet yearns to feel special, not just a freak but someone who counts.  

Sometimes when I felt the eyes crawling on me from all sides, I got scared thinking someone was looking who wasn’t just curious. I knew it was my imagination and I got used to it, learned to shunt it away. But sometimes I held on to it quietly, that feeling that someone behind or beside me in the crowd—some guy leaning on the target booth with a rifle, or some cranky, sweating father spending too much on ride tickets to keep his kids away from him—anybody could be looking at me in the sidelong way that norms use to look at freaks, but thinking of me twitching and biting at the dirt while my guts spilled out of the big escape hatch he’d cut for them. That helpless rasp of death waiting as he hurt me…a feeling like that is special. Sometimes you hold on to it quietly for a while.


The language in Water for Elephants is lovely, more delicate and polite. It goes down easily, but it doesn’t quite stun you with its power.

She was on the opposite side, standing against the sidewall, calm as a summer day. Her sequins flashed like liquid diamonds, a shimmering beacon between the multicolored hides. She saw me, too, and held my gaze for what seemed like forever. She was cool, languid. Smiling even. I started pushing my way toward her, but something about her expression stopped me cold.

Round Seven goes to…Geek Love!

And the Book Brawl victor is…Geek Love! The crowd goes wild! You know, this probably wasn’t a fair match. Geek Love’s one of the most ruthless novels I’ve ever read, and a sweet story like Water for Elephants didn’t stand a chance. It was a welterweight newbie going up against the heavyweight defending champ. But fear not, bloodthirsty readers! The battles won’t always be this cut and dried. Tune in next time for a real skirmish! And speak up in the comments: do you think Water for Elephants was robbed? What books would you like to see enter the ring next time?

About the author

Meredith is a writer, editor and brewpub owner living in Houston, Texas. Her four most commonly used words are, "The book was better."

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