Katherine Dunn’s misfit ballad resurrects a voice like no other

1. KATHERINE Dunn Toad
“Toad” is a curious specimen: a novel written in the 1970s that remained dormant until this year not because it was lost or unfinished or dreadful but because it was spurned. In 1989 Katherine Dunn published “Geek Love,” a tender and hallucinatory yarn about a family of circus freaks. It landed with a cannonball splash where her two earlier novels, “Attic” and “Truck,” had produced ripples. Between Dunn’s early fiction and her runaway hit, she wrote “Toad” and submitted it to her publisher. The book was rejected.اضافة اعلان

For nearly half a century the manuscript sat in an archive at Lewis & Clark College among Dunn’s papers — part of a bequest arranged by the author before her death in 2016. You would think that some canny publisher would have pounced on “Toad” following the smash success of “Geek Love,” which was a National Book Award finalist, if only as a money grab. But it was not until 2019 that an editor named Naomi Huffman, having been granted access to Dunn’s archive, read “Toad” and finally shepherded it to the finish line. In an editor’s note Huffman admits to a sense of “frustrated incredulity” that nobody beat her to the task.

If “Geek Love” was a misfit anthem, “Toad” is a misfit ballad — a quieter and more modest offering. It concerns the consciousness of a single marginal eccentric rather than the maelstrom of an entire family. Sally Gunnar is a reformed “bohemian slob” who lives on disability checks in self-imposed exile. She keeps a tidy house, hangs out with her goldfish, and passes the days in a depressive haze, self-medicating with ice cream and murder mysteries. In flashbacks, we learn of the events that led to Sally’s retreat from the world.

In this second timeline, she is 20 years old, waiting tables in Portland and surviving on soda and cigarettes. A chance encounter brings her into contact with Sam, a college student who embodies all that Sally would like for herself: effortless style, a life of the mind, sexual charisma, sophisticated origins. He’s also unbelievably annoying. In a foreword to the novel, Molly Crabapple calls him a “manic pixie dream boy,” which is exactly right.

Sally grows infatuated with Sam and his hippie friends, who sit around dirty houses and talk loftily of Zen and Wittgenstein. Although apparently as cash-strapped as Sally, the students wear their poverty with a certain panache, as though it were elective. (Which it might be. The presence of stable middle-class parents lingers just offstage.)

It is a tale as old as time: Sally loves Sam, and Sam loves a swimwear model from California with a big smile and long hair. The enigmatic Carlotta wears rawhide tunics and submits obediently to Sam’s whims, which include renaming himself constantly and speaking in non sequiturs. Sam and Carlotta conceive a child and move to the country, where they aim to be self-sufficient. Sally hangs around in the role of third wheel as Sam and Carlotta make disastrously naive choices.

When Older Sally looks back at herself, it is with torrential self-loathing. She castigates Young Sally for her lack of dignity, grace, and self-reliance. Younger Sally’s personality, however, is not the problem. The problem is that her friends, if that is the right word, do not care about or even notice it. Sam and Carlotta mostly appreciate Sally’s willingness to run errands and help them move, as if she were a servant or a U-Haul. She handles their negligence by absorbing and distilling it into a corrosive self-poisoning concentrate.

In both timelines, past and present, Sally spends a lot of time hating her appetite, which she considers a source of intolerable degradation. Her yearnings for food and sex mortify her; she is endlessly pained by what she perceives as a monstrous inability to restrain herself from indulging in both. Periods of gorging and restricting are cataloged in detail. Sally dwells viciously upon her body, describing the “thick lumpiness” of her wrists, “the mammoth, suffocating gawkiness” of her thighs. “I always felt like a dirty toilet,” she tells a friend. If anyone else were so cruel to Sally, it would be considered abuse.

One of Dunn’s running themes is the nature of disgust. As with her other novels, “Toad” brims with grime. Characters scratch their armpits and sweat and wear stained clothes. There is belly button lint and vomit and morning breath and flatulence and snot. Unwashed dishes. Sally is able to forgive ickiness when manifested in others — she barely blinks when Sam fries up a pan of moldy horse meat for his dinner — but cannot overlook her own infractions. She is equally the villain and victim of her story.

Reading “Toad” is like rummaging through the junk drawer of a fascinating person. It is chaotic, intimate, and unruly. There is not much of a structure or a plot. Still, it is impossible not to share Naomi Huffman’s bewilderment at the book’s burial. Dunn’s style is unlike that of anyone living or dead: simultaneously practical and bonkers; lovely and nasty. If the story of Sam and Carlotta is slightly dated — a tragedy of misdirected ’60s radicalism — it comes to us by way of a narrator whose psychological pain is horrifyingly timeless.

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