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Book Review: Toad by Katherine Dunn

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By Simon Demetriou

The allure of the overlooked discovery is one that seduces all enthusiasts, and the recent publication of Toad, which had lain dormant since its rejection by publishers in 1971, would seem to be the fulfilment of this fantasy for Naomi Huffman, the editor who rediscovered the manuscript. Unfortunately, for this reader at least, one is forced to conclude that sometimes things are rejected for a reason.

Now, I’m not trying to say that the world would be a better place had Toad remained unpublished. The world would be much the same. And that, really, is my problem. Toad has features that would seem to mark it out for success: an introspective female first person narrator-protagonist; a non-linear, associative plot; an unabashed depiction of the pains and vilenesses of the mundane; bohemian college dramas; a relatively well-managed metanarratival frame. The problems are twofold: not just have all these things been done better by large numbers of writers in recent times; but also that the original criticism which led to its rejection still holds: ‘Nobody in this book is likable!’.

Maybe it’s not cool to want characters that have redeeming features; maybe there’s a great lesson that people don’t change or grow, and that repulsive individuals just stay repulsive, perhaps getting a bit fatter, perhaps channelling their repulsiveness slightly differently. But I like to think that people who inflict pain on others for their self-indulgent gratification might have some spark of something to make the acts and their consequences meaningful and interesting, whether that be a touch of remorse or a streak of sadism.

Here, it just feels like there’s nothing, whether in Sally, the now-reclusive narrator whose capacity for human relationships seems limited to graspingly insecure possessiveness masked by dull cynicism; or in Sam, the central figure in Sally’s reminiscences, a character whose constant name-changes, incessant flow of pseudo-intellectual drivel, constant, abject, callous idiocy, and seemingly unironic love of a diet consisting only of horsemeat and rice, surely make any sane reader want to kick him in the face.

Basically, if you happen to be an enormous fan of Katherine Dunn’s style (her 1989 novel Geek Love and her writing on boxing and swearing do have a certain following) and are in the mood for a story that makes you feel worse about mankind, you might like this book. Otherwise, read something else.

P.S. If you’re annoyed that I haven’t really told you anything about what happens in this book, you’ll be even more annoyed when you read it and find out that only one significant event takes place, and if I’d told you what it was, it would have both spoiled the book and made you want to read it less.

 

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