Beauty in Recluse: On Katherine Dunn’s “Toad”
By Terry NguyenOctober 31, 2022
Toad by Katherine Dunn
Published after Dunn’s 2016 death, Toad considers the freedoms and limitations of a woman’s indefinite isolation. Recluse offers Sally dignity and distance from an ugly, troubled past. Her ambling narration is caustic and occasionally sentimental, oscillating between scenes from her scrappy college years and her tumultuous adult life. In youth, Sally was undesirable, unseemly, and suicidal. She admits to being “a great follower of persons,” seeking approval and affection in those who rarely returned it. Now, alone in middle age, she is finally content. Her physical traits, once the source of her ire, are unimportant: “Am I getting fat? I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, the goldfish won’t complain.”
Sally has maintained this hermetic lifestyle for an unspecified number of years (whether 10 or 35, it’s uncertain), living off meager government disability checks. She does not work or leave her home. She entertains the same four visitors every month. She tends to her plants and four goldfish. She has long given up on men, sex, and romance. Most nights, though, she goes to bed satisfied. Sometimes, she thinks about wanting more — not from life, but from herself.
Written over four decades ago, between Dunn’s second novel Truck (1971) and her magnum opus Geek Love (1989), Toad’s modern sensibilities are revealed through its narrator. Dunn crafts an unsparing portrait of a woman who, while softened by isolation, was once more vicious and violent than pure victim: caring in one instance, cruelly dismissive the next. This is where Toad feels ahead of its time — and maybe ours as well. Sally is not remorseful, nor does she skulk in self-pity. She acknowledges her bigotry and reflects on how her conscience has grown stale in quarantine.
It’s not hard to imagine why publishers might’ve panned the novel, a decision that, according to her son, devastated Dunn for years. Even the editor who published Dunn’s first two novels, Attic (1969) and Truck, rejected it “in a very ferocious fashion.” An ugly antiheroine who finds peace in her pitiful recluse might prove a hard sell in the 1970s. Fortunately, not so much today.
Sally recalls the wayward, “sad girl” protagonists in popular novels of the past decade — Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen (2015), Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (2016), Ling Ma’s Severance (2018), Raven Leilani’s Luster (2020), Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed (2021). While Dunn, who wrote in praise of the “bad girl,” might dispute the precise terminology, female melancholia dominates the current literary landscape. A vague pathology afflicts the lonely, oddball woman, whether it be neurosis, pain, desire, or ennui. She might have flings and romantic partners (Sally, by her count, says she has slept with 57 men), but her interior state remains guarded and unknowable. For Sally, this manifests in her celibate retreat from society
Sally’s staunch sexlessness is suggestive of a modern internet-era phenomenon: the femcel. As the spinster’s younger, trendier sister, the femcel is an involuntarily celibate woman destined to be “forever alone.” She is defined by lack — of love, beauty, respect. Anger, shame, and self-loathing loom in her mental periphery. While some femcels hope to escape this fate, Sally accepts her “clean spinsterish image,” shirking “the dangers of intercourse” and suppressing any inkling of desire. She scolds herself for wanting company.
“Now there is no flesh left that supersedes my own,” she says. Comfort is her main priority to the point of asceticism. Sally spends her days reading detective novels, cooking, and lounging about. But desperation arises from this commitment to forlorn bravado, like when she mourns the loss of one of her four consistent visitors, a Fuller Brush salesman.
With not much in her future worth anticipating, Sally wades through a hefty past. Her life unfolds in vivid but truncated flashbacks: a failed relationship with her final lover, a stint working at a donut shop, an ex-boyfriend’s birthday party, a mental breakdown at her childhood home, a 40-day starvation period when she had little money to spend on food. These loosely related vignettes are expounded upon with wry asides and little care for chronology.
Between mentions of these tragedies, Sally offers a meandering, tender narrative of her years living near an unnamed “local prestige college” in Portland, Oregon. She was not a student but an aspiring playwright working four service jobs a week. There, she met her on-and-off-again friends Sam, Carlotta, and Rennel. She hangs out in Sam’s cat shit–infested group house and sneaks into the college cafeteria for free meals with Rennel. She attends an on-campus reading by a famous poet, scornfully admiring Carlotta from afar. In such scenes, Toad veers from its confined character study to simulate the plot of a traditional campus (or off-campus) novel. The most significant interactions occur in private domestic spaces, like a remote cabin in the woods and a 24-hour laundromat. And while no dates or notable timestamps are mentioned, the book’s events are assumed to be set in the 1960s, mined from Dunn’s time at Reed College before she dropped out.
As the floater who’s brought into the fold, Sally derides the students’ intellectual posturing: “They sat waving their chopsticks at each other. Philosophy, psychology. Something big with words I didn’t know.” She doesn’t weigh in on their ideological squabbles. Dunn, too, avoids pontificating. There is no mention of war, student protests, race, or radicals. Instead, the novel fixates on the interpersonal, belying the politics of private life. Class politics was not lost on Dunn, a single mother, who wrote Toad and her early novels while working several low-paying jobs. It manifests in subtle ways. Sally’s casual observations reveal the financial disparities between her hard-scrabble life and that of her middle-class friends, who skip class to entertain romantic delusions about living off the grid. Yet conflict never arises from these stark differences. Dunn’s narrators do not moralize. They are insular, never myopic. They “are not hippies, yippies, liberals, radicals or representatives of any other group,” Dunn wrote of the protagonists in her second novel. This is also true of Sally, the outsider among her free-spirited friends.
Sam is a charming “collector of people” with no sense of identity. He tries on different names (Lance Sterling, Omar Rosen, Aram Rommel, Han Shan), interests, and philosophies nearly as often as he fully bathes, which is once every few months. Sam falls in love with Carlotta, a beautiful hippie rebel whom Sally envies and pities. The pair move to a cabin in the woods. They scrape together an existence that’s dependent upon their parents (for money) and friends (Sally and Rennel drive up weekly to deliver groceries). Rennel, the vain know-it-all, is the insecure third wheel to Sam and Carlotta’s romance. And as much as Sally and Rennel despise each other early on, they develop an odd rapport. “Rennel knows me,” an older Sally remarks. “Only Rennel still wonders about me.”
Dunn’s writing is dynamic and propulsive, even if her subject matter — college-aged misfits dawdling about — has been thoroughly exhausted. Her didactic prose surpasses the spare, dispassionate style common among today’s novelists. One is never bored. Dunn is best inside the head of her characters, unleashing delightful screeds of detail. Nearly five marvelous pages are dedicated to Sally savoring a Volcano Bar. Even in Sally’s most pitiful moments — like when she stares out a window, wondering if her lover is having an affair — her inner dialogue strays from emotive abstractions. It confronts her suffering, embeds flesh in feeling: “A distant and lucid view of myself emerged: my plump casing, the curdled flaccidity of my flesh, the coarseness of the cut of my hair, the bludgeoned untidiness of my face, the thick lumpiness of my wrists and ankles, the mammoth, suffocating gawkiness of my thighs and buttocks.”
Most characters, aside from Sally and Sam, seem restrained. Their digressions are kept in check. Carlotta exists as a hollow, pretty sketch to Sally’s raw complexity, the demure maternal figure who tolerates Sam’s antics. Too much attention is given to the men’s shenanigans. Only in the final chapters does Carlotta get her due. A sudden tragedy triggers an uncharacteristic and vengeful outburst. Perhaps this asymmetry reflects Sally’s flightiness with their friendship. “I tried to put some feeling into my eyes for her,” she confesses in one solemn scene. Sally is unable, or unwilling, to recognize Carlotta’s depth, and so she remains frustratingly impenetrable.
Sometimes Sally’s attention lingers on a minor character — an acquaintance, Ray, who later lends her money; “urine queen” Moira Clancy, Sam’s housemate whom Sally holds in high contempt; the famous poet Jacob Figarty — implying an unexplored relevance. They tease the breadth of Dunn’s world. What more was there? The figure of the poet, at least, surfaced in a short story posthumously published in The New Yorker. An esteemed resident poet has an affair with a student named Sally, who scornfully entertains his advances.
I get the sense that Dunn was wrangling with the manuscript before she put it away for good. One editor found its structure to be a problem, The Oregonian reported; it was “too minutely interested in things.” Another found Toad too “autobiographical,” lacking in theme and story: “Things are there not for any reason except that they happened. In that sense, the book is not ‘artificial’ enough.” (Ironic, given the autofiction boom over the past decade.) While a compelling page-turner, the novel is unbalanced and hastily concluded. Had Dunn been given more time and an advance, Toad might’ve proven to be a very different book. Perhaps this dissatisfaction is to be expected from any posthumously published work resurrected from the archives, especially one that its writer had given up on. But for all of its shortcomings, writing Toad was a creative stepping stone to Dunn’s magnum opus.
It is impossible to read Dunn’s early work without seeing shadows of Geek Love. A finalist for the National Book Award, that novel follows the Binewskis, a traveling circus family who breeds deformed children for sideshow acts. In Toad, Dunn masters the nonlinear narrative structure she struggled with. Whereas Toad is stalled by Sally’s static future, the present-day stakes are raised for Geek Love protagonist Oly Binewski, the neglected dwarf sibling who witnesses the horrors of the circus. Fantastical premise aside, there are clear thematic parallels linking Geek Love to Toad — namely a fascination with flesh, both beautiful and grotesque.
Beauty is as much of a curse as ugliness, Dunn reminds us. The cruelest fates are often foisted upon her most beautiful characters. They are not exempt from violence. Carlotta, by the novel’s end, shears off her long hair and scars her face in a moment of distress, raking her nails down her cheeks. Sally confesses to a “flesh worship,” having once believed “everything for the sake of particular veins in the forearms of particular people.” Only in forsaking the flesh of others — and her own — could Sally find personal salvation. Such bodily neglect was taken to extremes in Geek Love. A cult started by one of the Binewski siblings abides by the motto “Peace, Isolation, Purity,” where converts undergo a gradual amputation process to relinquish attachment to their bodies.
The gritty realism of Toad might carry less shock value, but its violence feels more visceral. The small cruelties are almost relatable, a reminder of the daily harms we’re capable of inflicting on others and ourselves. Life can be horrifying and painful and humiliating, but Sally finds relief in confronting its scabrous nature. “I think that all of that capacity for violence and aggression is just part of the continuum of who we are,” Dunn has said. “It’s all part of the same continuum of this animal that wills to live.” Dunn’s lifelong fascination with the grotesque is not pessimistic. She delights in the unknown, prods at what most people fear to confront. As is the case with Toad, I think it’s a generous inquiry into what makes life worth living.
Terry Nguyen is a writer based in Brooklyn. She covers culture and technology for Dirt, a Web3 media company and newsletter. Her work has been published in New York magazine, Vox, Vice, and The Washington Post, among other publications.
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