If Geek Love is, as the French say, jolie laide (ugly-pretty), then Toad is just ugly. Yet that doesn’t make it any less mesmerizing ... When tragedy hits with a wallop at the end, you’ve been so mired in melancholy you almost don’t realize how huge the punch is. Toad is sad, funny and, most of all, deeply, unapologetically, ordinary ... Which is not to say that Toad is an ordinary book. It’s as weird as anything you’d expect from a writer this good at describing animal functions. Fluids and fats and flesh smack throughout ... Dunn never lets us get comfortable: Just when the lyrical sentences begin to soar, she yanks up the mellifluous prose and thuds down squat subject-verb-object clunkers ... She lays on vulgarities thick as butter ... Toad, with its single narrator speaking alone in her living room, lacks that kind of choral power. Yet Geek Love exists only because Dunn figured out how to feel through Toad. What Toad provides is a subtler embedding in an embodied life.
A curious specimen ... If Geek Love was a misfit anthem, Toad is a misfit ballad — a quieter and more modest offering ... One of Dunn’s running themes is the nature of disgust. As with her other novels, Toad brims with grime ... Reading Toad is like rummaging through the junk drawer of a fascinating person. It is chaotic, intimate and unruly. There’s not much of a structure or a plot. Still, it’s impossible not to share Naomi Huffman’s bewilderment at the book’s burial. Dunn’s style is unlike that of anyone living or dead: simultaneously practical and bonkers; lovely and nasty.
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 ... With not much in her future worth anticipating, Sally wades through a hefty past. Her life unfolds in vivid but truncated flashbacks ... These loosely related vignettes are expounded upon with wry asides and little care for chronology ... 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 ... 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.
Dunn’s prose matches her heroine’s prickly personality well; it’s like a sea anemone that lures you in close enough to touch then stings you for your trouble ... Dunn isn’t as prudish as some writers today. She was also an award-winning boxing journalist, and revels in bodily fluids of all kinds ... There is a performativity to Sally as well, even in her moments of darkest confession, and one feels Dunn’s hand in these passages too ... What’s fascinating about Toad, and perhaps its most skillful quality, is how seamlessly it looks backwards and forwards at once ... We need more women like Sally in the world, and more writers like Dunn to tell their stories. If Toad is indeed the last word we get from the late great author, thank the literary gods she didn’t go quietly.
Comes closest to lucidity in moments...when the dry humor for which Dunn is known edges into something resembling a serious engagement with the racial and domestic politics of the liberation movement ... Statements of this nature feel sparse, appearing too sporadically to consolidate into a cohesive critical statement — perhaps less because of a lack of conviction on Dunn’s part than because of the book’s unwieldy structure ... The Sam-and-Carlotta portions of Toad are perhaps also the more successful of the bunch because they hew closely to the scenes of Dunn’s own years at Reed College ... The images and characters that populate those sequences are cohesive in a way that is never achieved in the jumble of passages concerning middle-aged Sally. It is the presence of this third timeline that causes the most trouble for the book ... Toad seems blissfully unaware of the chaos it has created. Storylines jostle against one another not only for primacy of importance, but for rights to the narrative space required to become coherent ... The novel in its entirety proves slippery, eluding easy characterizations. While it has political elements, it isn’t a political novel, nor is it a campus novel or a domestic fiction.
... acerbic ... Dunn, who died in 2016, was the author of the cult-favorite Geek Love from 1989, about genetically modified circus freaks. There has long been speculation about a follow-up novel, but Toad is not that. It is, rather, an unpublished manuscript from the 1970s, when Dunn was a single mother in Portland working subsistence-level, and sometimes dangerous, service jobs. The stresses of her circumstances make this a highly uneven book, repetitive and unprocessed. But its anger is raw, bitterly comic and frequently startling. What most activates Dunn’s rage is the misogyny that only deepened amid all the pretended freedoms of the counterculture. Refreshingly, this is not a simple victim’s story, as Sally’s loathing for her so-called friends is matched by her disgust for her own past meanness and insecurity. Her isolation, in the end, is less a form of emancipation than a self-imposed penance.
... a subdued, haunting novel. It is exhilarating, often disturbing, and as compelling in its way as Dunn’s best-known work ... Its focus on the quotidian makes Toad feel ahead of its time, reminiscent of the work of Susanna Kaysen, Elena Ferrante and Elizabeth Wurtzel, while its rude energy and language evokes mid-20th-century picaresques ... Dunn gleefully eviscerates 1960s counterculture ... For all its sly humor and cool detachment, Toad is a deeply melancholy story, not an elegy for lost youth, but an exorcism ... Finishing Dunn’s beautiful, sad, nearly lost novel, I was grateful that Sally, like her young author, perhaps, was able to find solace in telling her own story.
... a remarkable, disquieting, and judiciously revolting posthumous novel about, among other things, unrequited love ... succeeds not by being incredible, but by being so credible. It is, definitively, a novel for grown-ups, not just because of the advanced age of its narrator—the ornery Sally Gunnar—but because a thrilling, subtle, and wholly persuasive adult anger animates the book. I believed every word ... Despite its jumbled chronology, Toad tells a brutally straightforward story ... beneath the bite and verve of its prose, Toad is attuned to the quietly tectonic nature of intimate relations, and things between these frenemies shift in strata and run deep ... What a peculiar experience it is, then, both galling and gratifying, to read this book decades later, now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned. It’s not that Toad is exactly prescient—assaults on female autonomy are of course ongoing (the galling part), and concomitant female rage remains their warranted result (which explains much of what is gratifying.) But I wonder if Dunn had any idea how much her strange, savage, tender book would come to be protesting.
Dunn gives her faithful readers (and hopefully some new ones as well) a sharp, pointy stick of a read about growing old, the pain of past follies as a young woman, and the rage and isolation that can change perspectives in the sometimes swampy land of middle age ... Dunn loves to mire in the smells, feels and tastes of things that are both beyond their prime and a source of desperate nutrition ... Dunn's ability to pierce through the ravages of age while also perfectly relaying the foibles and craziness of young adulthood and identity seeking is a joy to read. Readers are pulled through the narrative like Sally; we are not always comfortable with where we are, but we are quite anxious nonetheless to see how it all works out ... Katherine Dunn was a truly creative, innovative and inspirational author.Toad speaks to these qualities and more. Descriptive, disgusting, heartwarming and enraging, this book will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
Sally is a great character, as is Sam, who seems to have logorrhea; their memorable story has flashes of brilliance and is compulsively readable, a feast for fans of the offbeat and a delight for those discovering Dunn’s work for the first time.
Pungent ... The story has moments of hilarity, its raw prose fresh with unpretty evocations of stale rooms and bad poetry. It amounts to a sobering look at the reality of what one’s glory days actually entailed, shot through with the unmistakable undertow of pain and self-loathing.