Quarantining the Past in Katherine Dunn’s “Toad” – Chicago Review of Books


The posthumous publication of a beloved author can be a dicey proposition. Unless the writer managed to finish the manuscript before she passed, the resulting book is often a work of assemblage and hearsay, incomplete and speculative by nature and thus rarely conventionally satisfying. And if it’s a book that was hidden away in a drawer for a number of years, chances are there’s a reason why. But it’s also irresistible, particularly for an author whose output was limited during her lifetime. That’s certainly the case with Katherine Dunn, whose cult classic Geek Love was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1989, but who only published four other books before her death in 2016. As Molly Crabapple’s foreword tells it, this new novel comes to us almost fifty years after it was first written. Regardless of the provenance, the best case scenario with endeavors like these is that readers won’t care how they were conceived; they’ll just be grateful to be in the author’s hands again. Lucky for us, then, that Toad is one of those books. 

Like Dunn’s three other novels, Toad is told by a first-person female narrator, in this case a woman named Sally Gunnar who has deliberately hidden herself away from the world. It’s a trait she shares with Dunn’s other protagonists, who are often marked by their confinement—sometimes, as in her debut, Attic, in actual places like a prison and sometimes in their own bodies. Sally, though, is somewhat unique in that she’s confined in both. She lives on the dole in a small rented house outside Portland with a pair of goldfish, and spends much of her time brooding over her misspent youth. “I am a dried fruit,” as she puts it. “The old patterns of my life are wrinkled but they persist, and probably will until I fold them neatly around me in my grave.”

Sally is a wounded woman, but she’s also inflicted wounds on others. The book’s plot, as much as it could be said to have one, is mostly a recounting of the period in her early twenties when she took classes at an unnamed college, based on Reed where Dunn received a full scholarship in 1965. Sally falls in with a group of philosophy majors, hippies, and slumming rich kids led by a dopily charismatic young man named Sam, before falling irrevocably out with them after a tragedy. They host parties, smoke grass, and trade the sort of drily humorous quips where someone says “looks just like somebody’s house” about somebody’s house. Interspersed throughout these memories are Sally’s reflections on where she is now and how she got there.

Dunn’s prose matches her heroine’s prickly personality well; it’s like a sea anemone that lures you in close enough to touch then stings you for your trouble. This is particularly true when Sally is fixating on the physical. Like Olympia Binewski in Geek Love, she is as fascinated by female beauty as she is repulsed by it, constantly holding her own ugliness against it like a funhouse mirror. If it weren’t for the exuberantly uninhibited quality of Dunn’s writing, these sections might tiptoe over the line into fat phobia. But maybe it’s more generous to say that Dunn isn’t as prudish as some writers today. She was also an award-winning boxing journalist, and revels in bodily fluids of all kinds (vomit, piss, feces, blood, breast milk; all make copious appearances in her work). One comes away feeling that adipose is just one more of them, and like many other things in Sally’s life, it takes on a certain sanctity simply by being the object of such scrupulous attention. 

There is a performativity to Sally as well, even in her moments of darkest confession, and one feels Dunn’s hand in these passages too. She never wrote an autobiography—a great shame since she lived a life of hairpin turns to the end—but a reader doesn’t have to dig too deeply to see how she’s threaded many of her experiences through her texts. Even a book as outre as Geek Love contains traces of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother. What’s fascinating about Toad, and perhaps its most skillful quality, is how seamlessly it looks backwards and forwards at once. Written when Dunn was still in her twenties, she dissects the experiences she’s recently had herself with the judicious precision of an older woman, granting Sally’s narrative voice a preternatural wisdom. But rather than getting mired in sickly sweet nostalgia, as an actual older woman might, Sally is merciless towards her younger self. Memory “slits me neatly from skull to crotch and leaves my two spread halves gaping bloodily,” she says. Dunn’s book does the same to the reader. 

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“There is something basically disgusting about needing an audience,” Sally proclaims during one of her flagellating rants, but what else are we readers than that? By the time she’s revealed the true depths of her destructive impulses, we are both her captives and captors. And if we’re not always sympathetic to her plight, that’s not really what Sally wants anyway; like many a modern woman, she’d much rather be heard than helped. Perhaps that’s partly why it took so long for Toad to see the light of day—its rage was too blistering, its intimacy too scalding for readers in the mid-70s stymied by Vietnam and Watergate and the crumbling counterculture. Now, in a year marked by renewed repression and the ominous rolling back of fundamental rights, her anger feels like a warm embrace. We need more women like Sally in the world, and more writers like Dunn to tell their stories. If Toad is indeed the last word we get from the late great author, thank the literary gods she didn’t go quietly. 

By Katherine Dunn

Published November 1, 2022

Sara Batkie

Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection Better Times, which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is now available from University of Nebraska Press. Her stories have been published in various journals, honored with a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and twice received Notable Story citations in the Best American Short Stories anthology series. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin.


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