Before Katherine Dunn published her celebrated novel Geek Love in 1989, she was a struggling single parent in Portland, Ore., paying rent by serving hash browns, painting houses, and pouring beers at a biker bar, where she became adept at breaking up knife fights. If this lean time was a prelude of sorts, it also came after an important chapter in her life had ended: the wide-open years of the late 1960s and early ’70s, when Dunn had dropped out of Reed College to go vagabonding around the world. More an observer of the era’s revolutionary energies than a participant, she had also become a writer during this period, penning two slim, savage novels about recalcitrant misfits—Attic and Truck—that were snapped up by a publishing industry seeking voices who could speak for a generation of dropouts. But by the time Dunn had moved back to Portland, the era’s youth movements had largely dissipated, as had interest in her first literary efforts. Her relationship with her son’s father had ended around the same time that the new novel she was working on—set at a fictional version of Reed in the ’60s—was rejected by her publisher. In the late ’70s, the sum of these disappointments left Dunn living in a tiny studio apartment, where her young son slept in the closet. It was in these years that she started working on Geek Love.
On the surface, Geek Love had little in common with Dunn’s previous fiction, all of which had been loosely autobiographical. The story of a family carnival whose patriarch begets a brood of ready-made attractions, it offered its readers an electrifying countercultural allegory about a world that—until its spectacular implosion—spurns the normative and celebrates the strange. Al Binewski and his clan live in their own, wild universe, where the air flashes with colored lights and smells like “popcorn and hot sugar,” and the biggest “freaks”—in the family’s proud terminology—are the biggest stars. But if, in rejecting the values of the straight world, the characters present a fun-house-mirror reflection of certain ’60s impulses, the novel views their utopianism with an undercurrent of cynicism: The freewheeling carnival turns out to conceal an all-too-familiar set of power structures, and the Binewskis’ dazzling world is undone by the garden-variety scourges of patriarchal violence, envy, and greed.
Geek Love made Dunn a literary celebrity and won her an avid following. Though it has sometimes been criticized for using disability as a metaphor, the novel became “a totem for outcasts,” in the words of Molly Crabapple, a book “likely to be referenced in a tattoo, an illegal mural, a strip club dressing room, or the smokers’ parking lot outside a home for troubled girls.” Yet Dunn’s most famous novel was also the last she ever published. Afterward, she wrote countless columns about boxing for local and national outlets—eventually collecting some of her pieces in the 2009 volume One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing—and tried for many years to produce a work of fiction set in the same subculture. That novel, Cut Man, remained unfinished when she died in 2016.
We finally have a new Dunn novel—not Cut Man, but Toad, the book she failed to publish in the ’70s. The story of Sally Gunnar, a working-class college student who falls in with a circle of campus hippies, it paints a slapstick and ultimately scathing picture of the 1960s counterculture. Sally’s friends try on Eastern philosophy and back-to-the-land self-sufficiency, leaving campus first for a farm where they become hapless homesteaders, and then for a monkish retreat where they meditate in the mountain air. The more radical their ideas become, however, the more regressive are the results of their experiments: If Sally’s friend Sam achieves some freedom, it’s only by conscripting his girlfriend Carlotta into a wifely servitude that is traditional in all but name.
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Dunn’s books are often described as cult classics, which fits not only in the sense that they inspire devotion but also in the sense that cults of personality always appear in them. This was a natural subject for a writer obsessed with the itch to escape convention but alert to the ways that the flight from social constraint can ensnare us in new structures of domination. In all her novels, Dunn considers the problem of freedom from a zero-sum perspective: Her characters seek the latitude to follow their every impulse, but they learn in the process how one person’s self-sovereignty can infringe on another’s—how, as Dunn once said in an interview, “within any kind of social structure…freedom becomes defined as power.” In Toad, this realization propels her protagonist into a self-imposed hermitage. For Sally, the only true escape from the tyranny of other people is a total retreat into what she describes as the cult of one’s own comforts and whims.
Like Toad’s protagonist, Dunn sought to liberate herself by fleeing the working-class world of her origins. She grew up in a family of mechanics and tenant farmers “so poor that they once ate their pet rabbit for dinner,” according to a biographer. Dunn’s mother, an aspiring artist whose talent was never given the space to bloom, sometimes raged violently at her life’s limitations: She was known to chase Dunn with a broomstick and once threw a screwdriver at her that lodged, upright, in her calf.
Dunn left her family’s home in Portland when she was 17, joining a traveling magazine-sales crew—a job that landed her in jail for passing a bad check—before enrolling at Portland State and then Reed. There, she took courses in creative writing, mixed with the bohemian offspring of the East Coast professional class, and began work on her novel Attic, inspired by her experience of being incarcerated. After falling in love with a poet during a trip to the hippie district of Haight-Ashbury, she dropped out of college in 1967 and spent years on the move with her boyfriend through Central America and Europe, giving birth to a son and publishing two novels by the age of 26.
Though Attic and Truck established the spiky rhythms Dunn would refine in later prose, they were also narrow, claustrophobic experiments. Reading them feels like getting lost in a maze where surreal outbursts of violence and scatological reveries rear up from nowhere to confound the reader’s sense of orientation. But Dunn’s distrust of the social realm is already apparent in both books. The protagonist of Attic—a girl who has been imprisoned for trying to cash a fraudulent check—is an outsider among outsiders, observing from the outskirts of the fraught society that coheres among inmates. She finds that the recourse to violence usually supersedes the impulse for solidarity: “We are so afraid of eating each other,” she realizes. “Sharks do—wolves do—it is irresistible.” Truck, the story of two misanthropic adolescent runaways, also depicts a misfit confronting the inherent cruelty of others. As its teenage protagonist, Dutch, submits herself to the schemes of her megalomaniacal best friend, the novel sketches out the themes of Dunn’s later work, showing how the social worlds created by dropouts and “freaks” are built on their own forms of subordination. “I’d rather be his sucker than theirs,” Dutch thinks, choosing the cult she’s constructed around her companion over the pieties of the conventional world.
Although Dunn’s early success stemmed from her association with a countercultural milieu, in truth, Attic and Truck scorned the social movements of the ’60s. In the notes for her second novel, Dunn wrote that its characters were “not hippies, yippies, liberals, radicals or representatives of any other group,” but loners seeking to get free on their own terms. Of herself and her boyfriend, she wrote elsewhere, “we were fundamentally selfish—convinced that the world couldn’t be ‘saved’ and even if it could be, we had enough to do to keep our heads above water, and weren’t the ones to do it.” Geek Love, too, resisted easy identification with any existing political vision, even as it levied a trenchant critique of power. The novel featured another outsider protagonist witnessing the rise of another heterodox tyrant. Olympia “Oly” Binewski, a “bald albino hunchback dwarf,” is the least spectacular product of her parents’ experiments, granting her liminal status in a family that values the unusual. Her “more gifted” siblings struggle against one another, competing to outearn each other. Eventually, her brother Arty—known as “Aqua Boy” because he was born with flippers for limbs—develops a cult following to expand his audience, urging his acolytes to free themselves from conformity by self-mutilating to look more like him. He also uses his position as the eldest son and presumed heir to best his rivals, the conjoined twins Electra and Iphigenia, with a brutality that ultimately blows up the family carnival. In the aftermath of this final conflagration, Oly chooses to live alone, seeking safety in solitude and anonymity.
Like Attic and Truck, Geek Love stood in the tradition of the grotesque, full not only of bodies that shock but of the shocking things that bodies do. Its pages pulsed with blood, steamed with excrement, and burned with destructive forms of devotion. Mikhail Bakhtin, in Rabelais and His World, once identified the grotesque as an aesthetic intended for the leveling of hierarchies—a characteristic of carnivals, where the mighty mix with the masses—but in Dunn’s hands it was a means to document them instead. Bakhtin called the carnival “a world inside out”; Dunn twists its signature aesthetic to a subtler purpose, using it to reveal the contortions that come of claiming to be liberated from what one has in fact internalized.
Toad takes the struggle to escape social convention as its theme as well. Like her predecessors, Sally Gunnar begins her story bent on a ruthless independence. She lives in a barely furnished attic room in Portland, where she plans to write plays and entertain no old lovers in order to keep her domain “free of emotional associations.” But she finds herself inadequate to her own idyll. “All those hours, alone in my peaked room, were spent in the grave,” she tells us:
I have an insidious conviction that between the onset of puberty and the age of thirty, people…do not exist without someone looking at them. I didn’t. After thirty, I suppose we become a corporeal composite of what all our viewers have witnessed, a kind of community gelatin.
Searching for a witness to her existence, Sally finds Sam, whose romanticism would seem to suit him for the part. “His way of liking someone was to glorify them past recognition,” Sally recalls. In fact, Sam’s gaze transforms everything it falls upon, turning his home—a derelict rental where stray cats shit in the hallway—into an intellectual salon and Sam himself, according to his ever-shifting fixations, into a bold frontiersman or a Zen sage. At first, it seems that even he has no cause to change Carlotta, a dream girl who waltzes barefoot into the novel and embraces his every far-fetched idea. But his form of attention does transform Sally, from a proto-punk in big boots into a conduit for a working-class wisdom that her new friends find exotic and appealing, even if most of it is sourced from a homesteading sister-in-law and a mother who bakes her own bread.
When Sam and Carlotta pursue their hippie fantasy by moving to a farm outside Portland, eventually dropping out of school, Sally makes regular visits, serving as a third leg for their dysfunctional dyad. She injects a note of practicality into their insouciant nirvana, delivering groceries to supplement their scant crops and bringing a manual for expecting parents after Carlotta discovers she’s pregnant. In setting up house, the pair morph from coliberationists to—functionally and then legally—husband and wife, meaning that Carlotta milks the goat, cooks the meals, and tends the vegetable patch, while Sam gets stoned and goes skinny-dipping with friends.
Throughout the novel, Sally seems torn about what kind of witness she ought to be. At times, she blends into the mass of dope-smoking poseurs who throw parties at Sam and Carlotta’s place, abetting their delusions while soaking up their radical ambiance. At other moments, it’s her doubt that wounds her friends most deeply. Carlotta resents Sally’s repeated insistence that she should give birth in a hospital instead of at home—hearing it, perhaps correctly, as less an expression of care than of skepticism. In moments like this, the subtle dangers of being mutually constituted—“a community gelatin”—begin to reveal themselves. Collectivity is a circuit, as Sally realizes: Mutuality can lead to mutual harm. If Sally’s cynicism sends a crack through Carlotta’s self-image, then Carlotta’s hurt fury maims Sally in turn. By the time Sam and Carlotta move off the grid to a cabin where their countercultural dream dies along with their infant son, Sally has largely withdrawn from their lives.
But while Sally is pained by the absurdity of the pair’s self-delusion, it is only after she loses touch with them that her story takes its most grotesque turn. In an otherwise tautly structured novel, which uses Sally’s present-day seclusion to frame her ’60s memories, the interweaving of a third strand about the years in between introduces a comparatively shapeless element. It is in these sections that the hypocrisy of her bohemian milieu finally pushes her over the brink. She realizes that the upshot of women’s liberation, at least in her case, is the willingness of her poet lover to live off the money she makes at a doughnut shop—even as he disdains her need for sexual pleasure and despises her doughnut-padded physique. After he leaves her, Sally has a breakdown that is also a break with society: She runs naked through the wintry streets of Boston, reveling in her unruly body, unleashing her anomie on a shop window, and taking a literal piss on the unfairness of it all.
In rejecting the agonies of love and companionship, Sally finds a pocket of freedom: For her mental distress, she is granted a permanent disability pension, which becomes the basis of her lonely retreat. She moves back to Oregon and lives by the belief that true independence entails a refusal not only to fall under the power of others but to be witnessed by them at all—to participate in the economy of perception that makes us into one another’s creations. There’s a bittersweetness to Dunn’s description of Sally’s hermitage: Her narrow life is full of small compensations, including “a diet of ice cream and murder mysteries” and the latitude “to move and sleep and fling my arms out no matter how the soft undersides swing.” If this is the best one can hope for, it’s humble in the extreme—a tiny ambit of freedom inhabited by someone who has lost faith that even liberty could be good for much of anything.
Dunn’s son has said that when his mother looked back on Toad, she found it too unremittingly cynical. But if its vision of liberation struck her as unsatisfying, that raises the question of whether she ever arrived at another one. Though an individualistic concept of freedom predominates in our political order, it is possible to understand liberty as a collective project: “a longing to share in power rather than be protected from its excesses,” as Wendy Brown writes in States of Injury, her seminal critique of modern liberalism, “to generate futures together rather than navigate or survive them.” What would it look like, we might ask, to be free with one another instead of alone?
Dunn seems most alive to the possibility of this kind of freedom in her later writings on boxing. In the gym, “the violence is ritualized and contained in the ring,” she writes in a 2005 piece collected in One Ring Circus. “The deliberate, artificial crisis of the ring reveals your spinal identity—who you are in the fire, in pain, in fear, in defeat, and more dangerously, in triumph.” And yet outside the ring, the boxers are expected to embrace an ethic of mutual respect and even kindness: “Outside the ring, nobody is hard on you.” People who can’t restrict their thirst for domination to its sanctioned space are ejected from the social world of the gym. Here, at last, Dunn seems to have found a glimmer of the kind of collectivity that evaded the characters in her fiction: a place where, in her experience, the assumption of shared risk secures total membership, and tenderness—expressed as care for one another’s bruised and bloodied bodies—is the norm. Most of all, a place where, by mutual agreement, people make room for the ugliness they carry inside them, guarding a zone in which to hold nothing back.