In ‘Toad,’ Katherine Dunn ’69 Draws on Her Time at Reed

The posthumously published novel is wry and penetrating.

By Jemiah Jefferson ’94 | April 21, 2023

It’s been 34 years since the last novel by Katherine Dunn ’69 was published—the blockbuster success Geek Love—and in the meantime her fans have had to content themselves with a string of fascinating nonfiction on subjects from profanity to the mechanics of boxing. Sparkling as these were, the medium of fiction is where Dunn’s work transcends skill into magic.

Nominated for a National Book Award, Geek Love threw a firecracker into the minds of a new generation of brainy outcasts. It described the indescribable and imagined the unimaginable. Its black comedy, endless heartbreak, unforgettable characters, and emotional violence presented both dispassionately and lyrically won devotees around the word, including Hollywood. But what a lot of the world wanted most was another novel from that extraordinary voice and lovingly twisted mind.

Dunn passed away in 2016 without finishing her long-promised boxing ode, The Cut Man, but her collected papers, currently housed in Special Collections at Lewis & Clark College, revealed a novel, Toad, that she’d written in the early ’70s when she was newly returned to Portland after an international romantic jaunt. She was broke and a single mother. She had not yet written Geek Love, but had published two novels to zero acclaim and nonexistent sales. When she presented this new manuscript, it was rejected by several different publishers, undoubtedly taken aback by its intensely grim humor and vicious introspection. Smarting from the rejection, she put the manuscript away.

Dunn’s connection to Reed undoubtedly colors her work, but not in a direct way; rather, the impulses that brought her to Reed as a student in the first place illuminate her entire creative output. Dunn’s father abandoned the family when she was two; her mother and stepfather eventually settled in the Portland area, and as soon as Dunn knew of the existence of Reed and its individualist ethos, she did all she could to spend time on campus, scrounging in the commons, and eventually winning a full scholarship. It was not as compelling as falling in love and traveling, however, and she dropped out in 1967.

In so many ways, though, Dunn embodied a particular Reed spirit that was only refined, not indoctrinated, by her experience as a student. She created Toad’s incisive and multilayered characters by observation and the curiosity that drives it.

It’s the story of a group of eccentric students in Portland, Oregon, in the 1960s (at an unnamed local college), as told by Sally, who is now middle-aged. With regret and self-loathing, she recounts the events that bring the group together and culminate in tragedy.

The members of this group are unforgettable: Sally and her friend Sam; her frenemy (and Sam’s girlfriend) Carlotta; everyone’s frenemy Rennel; and Sally’s practical, capable brother and sister-in-law—all sketched in magnificent detail. People, settings, foods, even animals are described with a feverish exactitude and vivid wit. Also notable is Sally’s specificity in describing herself, her thoughts, her body, and her mistakes. She proffers no moral judgments on the actions and decisions of her friend gang, even when they become antisocial and self-destructive; she does not consider herself one to judge.

Like Geek Love, Toad is ugly and beautiful, sad and rapturous, icky and sensual at the same time. Dunn’s ability to present dualities as simultaneous states of being is one of her great strengths as a writer and philosopher; laughter and disgust are mirror images of one another, as are love and narcissistic indifference, belonging and solitude, a desire to be above it all while turning to the gutter and giving it a big kiss.

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