Skip to content

Sad Girl Manifesto

The cult, carny world of Katherine Dunn

A few years ago, I developed agoraphobia. I did not, could not, leave my apartment. After several months, I was finally able to take a walk around the block with the help of a friend. Weeks later I could wander Greenwood Cemetery on my own. Eventually, with the help of a beckoning black cat, I was able to enter a bodega and buy a cup of coffee. I was, during those sleepless nights, constantly watching detective dramas and taking anything I could find for insomnia, keeping books and valerian root next to my bed like talismans. 

Sally, one of Katherine Dunn’s fictional stand-ins, has a similar quarantine, though for very different reasons. She is nursing her wounds late in the day, refusing to let anyone close to her, not even the soft specter of sleep: “The reason I sleep with the light on is that I fall asleep while reading, so that if I wake in the night I only need to lift the book and focus my eyes. The thing I am afraid of is the weakness of my mind in that period of half-sleep, the vulnerability I feel in the process of sliding into unconsciousness.” 

My roommate left for Portland, leaving me in the lurch with my landlord, and for a while I was alone in my agoraphobia, free to brew sullen potions and scribble vindictive nonsense in my notebooks the same way Sally tries to elevate her resentment into a sad girl manifesto. Neither of us got very far.   

Resurrection is a tricky art. Not everyone can hack it. Six years after her passing, Katherine Dunn may finally receive her due as a heroine of outsider fiction. In a 1991 dispatch on the Portland literary scene from the Washington Post, Katherine Dunn was crowned the “gonzo queen” to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “mentor/mom.” By the nineties, Dunn was already considered a Portland fixture after long years spent bartending and wheedling her way into the boxing scene as both an amateur fighter and journalist. She had garnered a stable of celebrity admirers in arbiters of outsider chic like Lana Wachowski, Courtney Love, Tim Burton, and Flea. Weird fiction was in. Still, she never received a proper biography, existing in marginal obits and on the crowded bookshelves of loners everywhere. Instead of chasing wider literary success, Dunn preferred the relatively quiet, tight-knit community of Portland. Le Guin seems to have been one of her few consistent literary companions, though their output couldn’t have been more different. Le Guin wrote maniacally, churning out novel after novel. During her lifetime, Dunn published only three, two of which are hardly mentioned when discussing her oeuvre. A reappraisal is long overdue. 

After the discovery of a lost novel and a bounty of short stories, MCD has contracted two new Katherine Dunn books. The New Yorker published one of the uncovered stories, “The Resident Poet,” in 2020. Now over forty years after it was written, Katherine Dunn’s lost novel Toad has arrived. The two seem enjoined by a curious symmetry. “The Resident Poet” follows a narrator with the same name, perhaps the same Sally. Both stories analyze disaffected women caught in the whirlwind of genius men who write poetry. What girl in a Bright Eyes hoodie hasn’t fallen for a troubled man with a notebook full of poems about the copulation of apocalyptic snails? 

The Sally of Toad can’t escape the trauma of her past life. She’s neither pretty nor interesting. From the vantage point of adulthood, the only thing Sally desires is solitude, nursing her wounds with masochistic relish. The problem is that she knows how insufferable she can be. “This all had a very literary bent to it, constant dramas played out in my peaked room.” Her acerbic later years play out like the fantasy of a young woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Silence sounds nice when the world is full of assholes. Sally falls into the life of a crone with a “diet of ice cream and murder mysteries.” 

Sally attends Reed College and falls in with a devilish trickster named Sam who plays guitar, waxes on Wittgenstein, and plows women while “blathering mysticism.” Many of the people Sally meets on and off campus fetishize Eastern religions, reaching out for some meaning beyond capitalism but stepping on others in the process. At one point Sam applies to medical school in India and is politely rejected. Sally jumps in and out of this cult carny world, calling herself an “intermittent member of the circus,” a hint at what was to come in Dunn’s literary career. “It seems to me that everyone I knew in those days acted by a code chosen from books and films—or not even a code but a direct emulation of a specific character who was meant to be identified and attributed,” Sally tells us. 

What girl in a Bright Eyes hoodie hasn’t fallen for a troubled man with a notebook full of poems about the copulation of apocalyptic snails?

Everyone is acting out their own hippie script, marching around babbling about philosophy and psychology. Sam, it turns out, doesn’t love Sally. He loves the wild and free Carlotta. He is a typical art bro, the kind of man to murmur about Hemingway or Dostoevsky without saying a thing. The kind of man who loves animals, writes bad poetry, and is always trying to learn another language. Unfortunately, after he knocks Carlotta up, he fails to learn the skills fatherhood requires. He continues to ramble about calligraphy and Zen. While visiting the chilly couple, Sam asks Sally to help with the planting. “I have black thumbs,” she replies to Carlotta’s disgust. 

Meanwhile, Sally lets the world go by. She drinks grape soda, works at the coffeehouse, writes plays, and sends up chain-smoke signals in her attic bedroom. When she checks in shortly before the home birth, Carlotta gives her an earful: “You don’t really give a shit whether me or my baby is alive or dead. It’s just gossip to you one way or another. And gossip’s all you want. That’s all you can handle.”

After Sam moves to Montana to raise his child with Carlotta and a small busload of animals, things go south. Their child, Ishi, seems to die from SIDS. By the time Sam finds Carlotta, she’s nearly killed the goat and the dog with an ax, though she later tells Sally it should’ve been Sam. The liberated children can’t get back to the garden. The death of a baby has shown them how brittle purity really is. “Beasts of this size were fun, in my experience,” Sally thinks. “When is a failure not a failure?” Sam asks. “When it makes a good story.” 

Innocence is always lost in Dunn’s fiction. No one escapes childhood unscathed, instead they nurse wounds bathed in the venom of silence. Women wait for years, considering reinvention, spinning webs of revenge. The self-destructive female is busy rebranding. She is starving herself and asking for less from romantic partners. Cruel optimism be damned, this is her individual failing to end negative thinking with some CBT and antidepressants. The spiraling girl can spiral because her rent is paid, and she thinks it’s a little hot to watch the room spin through tears. She’s self-aware, can name her triggers, and knows the right things to say to get on Wellbutrin. The masochist is lost in punishing herself, knowing full well her complicity won’t stop simply because she acknowledges it. Feeling bad about punishing herself is neurotic fuel, the only thing good for feeling sorry is more self-flagellation. Sally knows she’s hurting others in her hurt, she just doesn’t know of a better option. Self-forgiveness can feel an awful lot like giving up. Or worse, it can erase years of penance in favor of the predestination doctrine. Resurrection isn’t in her purview. Going up in flames is irresistibly beautiful. 

Remove everything toxic from your life except your own compulsions and what’s left? Imagining horrendous ways for your goldfish to die. Sally doesn’t quarantine so much as she makes herself so small that her rage begins to erode any confidence she has in the systems around her. Men are unpalatable, controlling, or outright boring. Women are demanding, either stealing her boyfriend or asking her to share in their burden. 

Sally, like many female Dunn characters, is obsessed with her weight. She invents “the Volcano Bar diet.” Rarely has writing about chocolate been so grotesquely extravagant. The narrator of Dunn’s first novel, Truck, and Sam’s girlfriend Carlotta both claim chocolate causes zits. Katherine, the autofictional narrator of her second novel, Attic, frets that all the butter and macaroni she’s served is “all a trick, a plot to weigh us down, smother us in ourselves.” On the other end of the spectrum, one woman’s body “whispers ‘hysterectomy.’” Elsewhere in Toad, a boyfriend berates Sally for her weight. In turn she buys a box of doughnuts, intent on sugary joy until the boyfriend pisses on them. Instead of retaliating against the boyfriend, she decides to throw a brick through the doughnut shop window, blaming the baker for her romantic woes—though she’s arrested before she can carry out her vengeance. When Sally eventually cuts herself off from the world, she relishes the freedom to eat without surveillance. Her goldfish sees her as a god, surely it won’t say anything about her weight. 

Sally tries to kill herself multiple times, though she never succeeds. She stares at poppies and listens to the toad in her backyard, but she can’t do herself in no matter how hard she tries. Instead, her stomach acid boils. Hot girls have IBS, and they need to hit something. 

“In the old days it was considered crass, ill-bred, and potentially criminal to ram the lady in front of you with your shopping cart simply because she had slipped into the checkout line out of turn,” she seethes. Lacerating as she is, Sally can only ever diminish those she feels are beneath her. A girl who sleeps with her boyfriend is a filthy toilet. Later Sally spills that she’s the one who “always felt like a dirty toilet.” Her anger burns out, giving way to hermitage. Whatever guilt she feels is overshadowed by the lonely crawl she makes, refusing to take ownership over her life. Depression, the common adage goes, is internalized anger. If it doesn’t go somewhere it settles at the pit of the stomach. As a child, Sally killed her pet goldfish under her mother’s influence, just as able as Carlotta to alchemize anger into slaughter. As an old maid, she’s only able to squabble with her sister-in-law who hardly comes to visit anyway. 

The women in Dunn’s breakout novel were less contemplative but no less bitter. Written around ten years after Toad, Geek Love follows a carny family as they struggle to eke out a living in a world that has grown weary of weird for weird’s sake. The patriarch and matriarch of the family decide to breed like lab rats. Whenever Crystal Lil becomes pregnant she treats her stomach like a kaleidoscope of toxins. She’s no Kardashian, unless green juice is the newest radioactive drug. The less healthy the pregnancy, the more uncanny the freak. The oldest child, Arty, has flippers for hands and feet; Elly and Iphy are Siamese twins; Oly, the narrator of the book, is a hunchbacked albino dwarf; and the youngest, “Chick,” seems normal at first until his telekinesis comes to light. 

Arty wants to rule the world. Frequently he lectures normies who come to the circus on how bad they want to be him. Arty develops a cult in which the devout voluntarily give up their limbs, fingers, toes, and so on. Oly, Elly, and Iphy are less power-hungry, though they want their womanhood validated through men just as much as Arty wants a crown. Eventually Oly, through the use of Chick’s telekinetic powers, obtains Arty’s sperm and impregnates herself. When a horrified Arty finds out what Oly’s done, his threats terrify her into giving the child up for adoption. Men are always elusive for Dunn women. 

There is a brief shimmering moment where Oly has the option to flee. A carnie offers to run off with her but she chooses to stay until the circus burns down, watching her brother—the father of her child—die. This is the violent side of resentment. Even if desire eats them alive, each Binewski child wants something they can’t have, each wants their own version of a normal life. Sally on the other hand doesn’t want anything. She doesn’t even want to get out of bed. Briefly, she remarks that others may find solace in her eccentricities and feel free to indulge their own, but even this is swallowed by the loneliness of making coffee for one. Oly, at least, gets to make use of her anger and go down swinging. Geek Love carefully tracks Oly’s descent into spiteful seclusion until she’s able to lay her final cruel trap. 

Dunn knew outsiders, though her work often rides a fine line when it comes to making a straw man of disability. The line between reclamation and joke is up to the reader. Even so, she struck gold in the way she wrote about normies. Normies want the power of freaks. Normies want to know how freaks fuck. But some freaks are also geeks. A geek, we’re told, is someone who is so useless to a circus family that the only show they’re capable of giving is biting the heads off animals. Usually chickens. 

During my agoraphobic months, memory was all I had. The future was clogged. The narrator of Attic remarks, “I feel trapped in my own history—memory is such an aggressive thing.” Sally displays a similar inability to unwrap herself from the sticky mist of nostalgia. It’s comforting to go over a groove. Time wiggles like green Jell-O. Only with time can Sally denounce her youth. Dunn, on the other hand, mined her youth for content. One way not to let bitter sediment settle at the bottom of the tank is to write it. 

Katherine Dunn was born in Kansas in 1945, though she moved often with her family before eventually landing in Oregon. She had a fraught relationship with her mother, who hit her with a broom, and left home at seventeen, intent on fulfilling her own Huckleberry Finn fantasy. She began her wildcard life by selling bogus magazine subscriptions with a group of teenagers until she passed a bad check and landed in the Jackson County jail. The experience set her on the straight and narrow, and inspired her second novel Attic.

She briefly attended Reed before dropping out in 1967 to see the world with her boyfriend Dante Dapolonia. In Europe, she found the distance needed to write her first two books, Truck and Attic, two speedy stream-of-consciousness novels reflecting on the loss of childhood, the theme she would return to again and again. “It is bitter for the young to see what awful innocence adults grow into, that terrible vulnerability that must be sheltered from the rodent mire of childhood,” she wrote in Geek Love. From adulthood, she would later reflect that she, too, had grown into an awful innocence. 

Dunn returned to Portland with a child and the need to make a living. Dapolonia and Dunn broke things off not long after. Like a Dunn character, Dapolonia ended up spending almost a decade in federal prison in the 2000s for a series of bank robberies. 

Single motherhood wasn’t easy going. “I have to say that having a child never interfered at all. Having to earn a living sometimes interfered, but I would have had to do that anyway,” she said in a 2009 interview with Guernica. She found work at Earth Tavern, the local punk dive bar, gaining a reputation for her steely nerve. Her son, Eli, recalled the way she grabbed knives from men and “never came home with a scratch.” She was the kind of woman that demanded respect. 

As she stirs her witch’s brew, listens to her toad, and wonders if she can handle a “warm-blooded” critter like a cat, Sally ultimately asks if she’s the one to blame for her sad fate. 

In Molly Crabapple’s introduction to Toad, she writes: “It is many things, but it is above all a working class woman’s story, through and through.” Dunn was a struggling artist, she knew the value money held for a single woman. “Women who pay their own rent don’t have to be nice. They can afford to be real, and that can mean bad,” she wrote in a 1995 Vogue article. Sally, having found a way to stay on permanent disability in order to pay her living expenses, is certainly not nice.  

Dunn wrote with the same ferocity she tended the bar, often for the Willamette Week. Her first article was a review of Stephen King’s Cujo. She attended readings and became a mainstay in the Portland boxing scene, taking up the sport in her forties and covering figures like Mike Tyson, Andy Minsker, and Laila Ali. 

During her first few years back in Portland, single and struggling to make ends meet, she wrote Toad. Editors passed it around, praising her writing but refusing to publish it. This rejection seems to have induced paranoid perfectionism. She spent years slowly crafting her follow-up, the cult classic Geek Love. Apparently, the story goes, she saw a rose garden and imagined a family able to cultivate their spawn. Her commitment to community extended outside of simple affinity—she helped found the Northwest Writers Inc., a group that helped fund a variety of initiatives including child-care payments. The group also offered dental insurance, and for some time Dunn handled the paperwork herself. The gonzo queen still believed in mutual aid. 

With the groundwork laid, Dunn’s perfectionism paid off. In 1989, Geek Love struck a chord. Chronicling the life of a dynastic radioactive carny family, Geek Love was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Bram Stoker Award. The money was a godsend. Her follow-up, The Cut Man, a novel that she said would be about boxing in the same way Geek Love was “about” the circus, was slated to be released multiple times—an excerpt even appeared in The Paris Review. But it never came. In 1991, Ursula K. Le Guin sent Dunn a note:  “How goes the B**K? I didn’t ask.”

Instead, Dunn published a book of essays on boxing and a short book on the craft of literary cussing. Not long before she died at seventy from lung cancer, Dunn reunited with a college flame and they married in 2013. Some nostalgic domesticity before the end. It seems Dunn was more vicious on paper than in life. Before she passed away, she took care of her mother, the same one who hit her with a broom. For some redemption is an action. 

“The hype of boxing is true enough. The sport is hard and only the brave endure. The game is brutal, but its core is strangely gentle,” Dunn once wrote. The shadowboxing Sally practices with memory isn’t much different. As she stirs her witch’s brew, listens to her toad, and wonders if she can handle a “warm-blooded” critter like a cat, Sally ultimately asks if she’s the one to blame for her sad fate. 

But, no, this is not a novel about beguiling optimism or self-compassion. Sally can’t flip the narrative she’s been writing. Romance and redemption seem far-fetched considering how few visitors she has and how many of them she scares away. She reflects: “There is something about small, compact men that has always fascinated me.” But no man rescues her. (Short men beware, Katherine Dunn also has a doctor in Geek Love flirt with dosing women with testosterone as a form of disfigurement. Though, personally, somebody on T is always appealing, contrary to whatever anyone on Twitter may say about irreversible damage.) 

For most, unemployment runs out. Eventually, agoraphobia is supposed to turn toward productivity. Even if no man comes to the rescue, we are to do it ourselves. When I spent months staring at walls thinking about my past, I did not learn some essential truth about trauma. I did not stop punishing myself or try to make a hard time a little bit easier. Nursing wounds can sour us. Suffering, whether for ourselves or others, is not valiant, Dunn suggests. Yet many of us do it anyway. Letting go always spoils a good sulk. 

Sally never learns the art of resurrection. Katherine Dunn may have found a way to bandage the wounds from the rodent mire of childhood, but Sally refuses. Toad is Dunn’s most cutting diatribe on the worthlessness of adult innocence, about the failure of confronting the past with lucidity. The self-destructive girl’s black thumb allows another withering plant to die. The careful narrative of domestic peace she gives us is really the tale of a lonely gardener, unable to keep human connection alive.