Warts and All

‘Toad: A Novel by Katherine Dunn’


FROM THE ARCHIVE of a literary icon, shouts the jacket copy. This novelist shudders. What do we fear more than to die and leave a manuscript unpublished? That fact represents years of effort, humiliation, discard, disappointment, setbacks, shirks, and ultimately, failure. And in this case, the late Katherine Dunn (1945–2016) was the author of one of our most popular of iconoclastic novels, Geek Love (1989), which created a universe from the perspective of outsiders who valued their difference. Although her follow-up Cut Men was scheduled by Knopf, it never appeared—one of the infamous, invisible works that hide in historical shadows. And now Toad, an earlier book (written in the 1970s), appears six years after her death from lung cancer at age seventy. How could someone with such a successful work as Geek Love (National Book Award nomination, hundreds of thousands of copies sold) not be able to publish an earlier work? It would have to have been really terrible—which has actually never stopped a status-quo man—or else so good that the gatekeepers couldn’t tell. Or perhaps it just needed a few conversations that no editor was willing to provide. Or did she hide this work, maintaining her own oblivion by choice?

Like Geek Love, Toad is a novel like no other. It is an epic exploration of the train wreck nightmare of the countercultural, back-to-the land, young white woman of the 1960s, subjected to the earth-mother deception and the burden of hippie patriarchy. The blazing centerpiece is Sally, the first-person protagonist who is witnessing the pregnancy of her acquaintance, Carlotta, the girlfriend of a wealthy Jewish classmate who has dragged them both into an open-door, communal life on a nonfunctioning farm in a disastrous, rural-deprivation endurance ritual. The farm produces one tomato while the revolving inhabitants live on horsemeat, rice, and the milk of a sick goat for whom they forget to provide water. The shack smells of leftover incense and never-emptied bowls of cigarette butts. While it is all somehow familiar, the reader gets jarred into the realization that such down and dirty details of female hippie experience are missing from the American canon, and they were waiting here all along in Dunn’s “archive.”

Like most female experiences, female-hippie subjectivity is a central motif of American life that has never been explored in a major work. And then there’s Dunn’s craft, which is remarkable, as when Sally first encounters Carlotta and Sam’s newborn, haphazardly covered, sleeping in a box. Carlotta tells Sally about pushing her baby out alone in their dirty farmhouse (feckless Sam was MIA), tying off the umbilical cord with dental floss, and cutting it with a kitchen knife. Sally observes: “The small thing in the box seemed more like a baby as I stared at it. Carlotta’s eyes fixed on it and then moved over the red flesh that was too small to be open to the air. Beasts of this size were fun, in my experience.” Those sentences deliver great empathy for Carlotta and for the baby as well, as a clear picture of the hardscrabble survival future that awaits them with that asshole father, all without ever compromising Sally’s lack of love for Carlotta. The characters exist fully and simultaneously.

Toad is a sad, manic, rollicking book by a writer with a great freedom, both of language and of form. The story is led by the nose of emotion and curiosity, and where it takes Dunn is unpredictable, a quality often confused for a lack of craft, which may explain why this book was never allowed to be seen by readers. On the other hand, had Toad been published when it was written, no one like me would have been allowed to review it. Someone akin to John Updike would have belittled it and devastated the original and super-talented Dunn’s chance for any reasonable future. In other words, like almost anything interesting involving women, it was decades ahead of its pathetic time.

Katherine Dunn.
Photo by Bob Peterson.

The touchstone is Dunn’s two years at Reed College in Oregon surrounding her twentieth year of life in the sixties, stories that form the spine of this novel and to which she returns again and again. Her crowd is a bunch of pre-bohemians with no clichés to fulfill, who are therefore chaotic, dirty, and thrashing about in life. Dunn’s ideas about race and sexual orientation date the book—she notices “little lesbians” from time to time but never actually speaks to any of them, and the white-hippie exoticization of Indigenous peoples is uncomfortably present and true to the perspective of its moment. At the same time, the style is so rambunctious, it makes most contemporary novels look repetitive and formulaic, jumping back and forth through time in ways that are emotionally justified and then spending four pages describing eating a chocolate Volcano Bar. It is also a pre-feminism work, because women’s condition is a central topic but yields no analysis beyond authorial frustration. The point of view is revealing as hell about the awful spot of women, both the popular and the isolated, only it is too early for a shared vision of solution. Dunn, the author, is both liberated and plagued by free access to her feelings and the self-permission to act them out. In her youth, this starts off with isolating herself, fucking arbitrarily, eating weirdly, and taking few precautions with safety and cleanliness while leading her life writing-first. The protagonist, Sally, seems unaware of social norms, to her benefit.

In a startling and fulfilling formal leap, what we expect to be a 1960s coming-of-age-in-college novel gets blown to bits when Dunn time-jumps to Sally’s midthirties. She weighs two hundred pounds and lives in Boston with a poet who urinates on her donuts to stop her from making herself even more miserable. She leapfrogs around different periods of an angry, confused adult existence, always coming back to those young years of watching her closest companions fall in love with each other, which she can never find a way to do. It is this revisiting, structurally, that brings so much enrichment to the novel, looking back, back, back, perhaps in an effort to discover the cause of her adult pain or perhaps just for the pleasure of remembering. In this way, Toad reminds me of Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls Fat and Thin, which reviews details of experience in order to discover an explanation for a life that cannot be summed up.

Sally’s journey is one that today we would call “bipolar,” but it is written without diagnostic intent. And Dunn has such command of the feelings-to-page process that her character’s inability to get a grip on her roller-coaster life is conveyed fully, with articulation and coherence. Sally, on aging: “I used to pride myself on handling people. Another myth of myself expunged, and about time.” Sally’s early love affair with Carush (“another one of my beauties”): “He made me happy enough, in his dour and ridiculous way.”

Toad makes me cry for all the singular women writers out there who were subjected to the brutalities of the homogenizing apparatus. Yes, Dunn got her moment of recognition with Geek Love, but unlike the myth of “success,” it gave her no power whatsoever regarding her other works. This reality should shatter the illusion that “success” works equally for women and men. An iconoclast like Dunn, illuminating such a classic but ignored American story, simply did not fit into the apparatus.

So, kudos to the book’s editor and champion, Naomi Huffman, and the heroes at FSG who fought the fight and got Toad into print. I hope it will win some recognition as a gifted chronicle of American experience, one previously undocumented and uninterpreted and, therefore, denied.

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