I don’t remember how I came to read Katherine Dunn’s cult-classic novel, Geek Love. It is the story of a circus couple and their literally homemade “freak show”; all of their children were purposely subjected to chemicals and drugs in utero in order to produce “show-worthy” birth defects. I was likely still reading The Babysitters Club when it was published in 1989, and while it was being praised by Kurt Cobain and Terry Gilliam, there is little chance it was carried by my small town library. Nonetheless, it eventually popped up on my literary radar and Dunn’s vivid and often grotesque imagery is forever seared into my subconscious. That Tim Burton bought the rights to the book probably says enough.
Geek Love is not the book I’m talking about today. However, without it, I would have probably never given a second glance to Toad.
Toad, published this past fall, 6 years after Dunn’s death, was penned long before she wrote Geek Love. Although she had two previous novels under her belt, this third book was declined by her publisher, and attempts to revise it and shop it around to a new house were unsuccessful. The story is based on Dunn’s experience in 1960s Portland, and having the largely autobiographical work rejected over and over was a blow to Dunn, who eventually shelved the book. She then spent years perfecting her ultimately-acclaimed next project, Geek Love, before submitting it to professional critique. Dunn never did try to find a publisher for Toad again, but after her death, her son Eli was contacted by an editor searching for Dunn’s lesser-known writing and he lent her the manuscript. After she overcame her shock that no one had tried to release the book before her, she helped usher it into print.
Compared to Geek Love, the characters in Toad are almost boringly normal. Sally Dunn, our protagonist, oscillates her narrative between her current life as a near-recluse, alone with her regrets in a small house she pays for with her disability check, and tales of her misspent youth near a college campus in Portland. She tags along after a group of hippie students, with their lofty (often naive) ideals and lack of work ethic, that she seems to simultaneously envy and loathe. She despises them because they come from cushy middle-class backgrounds and choose to live in bohemian squalor, but she despises herself even more for not fitting in, always being the outsider.
There are no heroes in Katherine Dunn’s world – only victims and villains, and they are often one and the same. There is no one to root for, or against, as everyone has the capacity for cruelty, kindness, love, and loss. Sally tells the story, but without the rose-colored glasses through which we often view our good old days. She recognizes that she, too, can be both brutal and benevolent, and that realization is among her reasons for her self-isolation.
At times sad, humorous, honest, and grotesque, Katherine Dunn’s writing is not for everyone. She doesn’t sugarcoat humanity – people can be gross, crass, and annoying. Nonetheless, I’m glad these books crossed my path. Now I need to go wash my hands.
Dunn, Katherine. Toad, New York, New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022.