The Rebellious Profanity of Katherine Dunn

Tobias Carroll
Jun 19 · 8 min read

How does language speak truth to power? More specifically, how can language be used to rebel against power? The protagonists of Katherine Dunn’s three novels — 1969’s Attic, 1971’s Truck, and 1989’s Geek Love — are all positioned on the outskirts of society, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. (Dunn also wrote extensively about boxing: her 2009 book One Ring Circus collected her nonfiction about the sport, and her unfinished novel The Cut Man bears a title that alludes to the sport.) At the time of her death in 2016, Geek Love had been a cult classic for decades. In a lengthy article exploring its influence for Wired, Caitlin Roper called it “a dazzling oddball masterpiece.” She’s not wrong. It’s a novel that was nominated for both the National Book Award and the Bram Stoker Award, and that juxtaposition speaks volumes about Dunn’s aesthetic even if you haven’t read a word she’s written.

Now entering the world is a new book from Dunn: On Cussing, which has its origins in a lecture that Dunn gave to the Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program. There’s a steady growth in the number of lectures-turned-books in the world today. Some, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel lecture My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs, serve as a quick introduction to the author’s craft; others, like David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water and Neil Gaiman’s Art Matters, read like short manifestoes that double as eminently giftable books around holidays and graduations. And another camp of these books, represented by Ali Smith’s In the Spirit of Spark, offer a window into something unexpected: one writer going long on the influence of another on their bibliography.

On Cussing is a little less formal than that. Its first two sentences total three words: “So. We cuss.” By its very nature, this is a craft essay — but it’s also a craft essay that contains a fully diagrammed version of the sentence “Fuck the fuckety fuckin’ fucker,” a favorite saying of Dunn’s father. And if this was all that On Cussing had to offer, it would be both thoroughly entertaining and a useful resource for many a writer. After all, profanity is a part of language; it can be used deftly or ploddingly just like any other. But that isn’t all that Dunn’s doing here. Observing her trio of novels through the lens that she provides here offers a glimpse of how Dunn uses profanity to give her fiction an extra jolt of anti-establishment feeling. Looking back on her novels with this in mind adds a new dimension to them — and reveals some fascinating elements within On Cussing as well.

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Aspects of On Cussing provide welcome relief from the idea of profanity as somehow monotonous. “When it comes to foul language, be specific,” Dunn writes late in the book. Earlier, she offers a sentence that reads like an aphorism: “But we must always be on guard against mediocre cussing in our writing.” The effect here, then, is a kind of redemption of cussing: of bringing words that have heretofore been considered verboten back into the writer’s toolbox. On paper, this might read something like comedian George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” bit, but Dunn’s aim is different from Carlin’s poking and prodding at puritanical elements in society. (Though Dunn does, over the course of her book, praise both Carlin and Richard Pryor for their deft use and deconstruction of profanity in their work.) Dunn’s work here is more about dismantling the puritanical elements within other writers — of arguing that, in the right hands, the right cussing can be as evocative and as seamless as any other choice of words.

To do so, Dunn ventures back into linguistic history, citing Melissa Mohr’s 2013 Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing as having helped shape her thoughts on the subject. “We hip moderns did not invent cussing,” Dunn argues, citing foul language situated in ancient Rome and Babylon as examples. But in Western culture, she argues, this changed with the rise of the Catholic Church in the medieval era.

The use of a phrase such as by Christ’s bloody wounds was a mortal sin that could condemn you for eternity. Shortening it to, say, zounds, as they did in Elizabethan slang, didn’t make it any less horrible. Even hearing such language was dangerous.

It’s with this passage, along with several others, that Dunn establishes a connection between the persecuted profanity of history with the persecuted protagonists of her work.

Each of Dunn’s novels follows a character on the margins of society, fighting conformity (sometimes literally). Kay, the narrator of Attic, spends much of the novel in prison. Dutch, the teenage protagonist of Truck, finds herself at odds with her mother, her school, and various patriarchal figures. And in Geek Love, this conflict is the case within both of its parallel timelines: in one the Binewski family is at odds with the physically “normal” world around them due to their anatomy and carnival-based lifestyle; in the other, years later, daughter Oly is pitted against Mary Lick, a wealthy and religious woman who spends her money in part paying people to alter their nonconforming bodies.

It’s telling that Mary is the least sympathetic character in Dunn’s fiction; it’s also notable that Oly’s brother Arturo, with flippers in lieu of arms and legs, becomes a more ominous figure as he transforms over the years into something akin to a populist cult leader using, tellingly, his skill with language. “He learned to talk,” Oly recalls about the refinement of her brother’s act. “He recited rhymes, quoted the more saccharine philosophers, commented on human nature.”

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The same linguistic history that Dunn navigates in On Cussing is a visible strain throughout her work. The term “Dogsbody,” with its roots in British naval history, shows up in the second sentence of Attic. Kay, the novel’s protagonist, spends time with an open Bible, jotting down quotes from Scripture and sharing relevant passages. Kay’s stream-of-consciousness narration is substantially removed from Dunn’s meticulous rhetoric about language, but Kay has inherited her author’s passion for words and language, and her inquisitiveness about their histories. One scene in particular anticipates On Cussing — specifically, a section in which Dunn cites Melissa Mohr’s argument that the lack of privacy in medieval great halls obviated a sense of privacy and kept many things from becoming taboo. This is echoed by a scene early in Attic where Kay describes using the bathroom in a shared jail cell: “I would like to shit too but I’m afraid there’s not time before Marie wakes up and breakfast comes. Besides, I’d be ashamed to have her see it here and shit over it.”

Contrasts between well-constructed sentences and starkly candid profanity are also on display in Truck, which is written in a similarly stream-of-consciousness style to its predecessor. Early on, narrator Dutch describes life on the road, with a man unaware of her gender. “He doesn’t know I have a cunt,” she writes. ”He wouldn’t be here if he did.” That matter-of-fact use of language reveals plenty about Dutch, who emerges as a candid narrator. Later, in a moment of anger, Dutch lashes out: “He isn’t the only motherfucker who can get mad. If he says anything, I’ll call him a flabby-assed queer.” Once again, there’s the same specificity in cussing that Dunn would highlight years later in her lecture on craft.

But the use of “queer” as a pejorative also illustrates one of the hazards of using nominally verboten words in this context. Dunn’s discussion of cussing in On Cussing doesn’t include words specifically designed to target people due to their gender, race, or sexuality — but the use of these words do raise some of the same questions of inclusiveness and divisiveness sparked by her use of profanity. Some of this may also be that times have changed: several decades elapsed between the publication of Attic and Truck and the lecture from which On Cussing arose. Dunn acknowledges this in On Cussing, writing that “[i]n our modern era, the deepest language taboos surround racial, ethnic, and more recently gender epithets. These are our most genuinely shocking and offensive words. But that subject would require an entire volume to itself.”

To the extent that she does use these words in her work, they’re particularly disquieting. Attic’s Kay takes about referring to one of the jail’s matrons, via a racial slur, then turns more philosophical about it, and uses a noticeably less fraught term. “I’m from the north, Oregon, and I always thought Negroes were just like anybody else. Since I’ve been here though, I’ve wanted to insult them.” It’s possible that Dunn’s allusion to Oregon here is a sly nod to the state’s racist history and a dig at the self-righteous and hypocritical, constant targets of Dunn’s writing. But in this case, it’s also a powerful reminder of the power of language, even nominally foul language, to both include and exclude — and the ways that the nominally marginalized can use language to establish a social hierarchy of their own.

By the time of Geek Love, Dunn had turned this aspect of language into a more overt subtext. Narrator Oly narrates books for the blind; the raw materials of language are at her command. (She also gets one of the best examples of cussing in Dunn’s fiction: to wit, “Creeping Christ!”) Oly’s brother Arturo has a similar affinity for language, but he translates his verbal dexterity into something more sinister and demagogue-like. (“He might have made a grand South American general,” one character observes late in the book.) And Arturo’s populism and appeal — which eventually leads to his founding a cult-like movement, the Arturans — is predicated on his penchant for rhetoric. Dunn leaves little ambiguity here about the end results of this: Arturo’s charisma is the undoing of his family and many of his followers. (To say nothing of one of his followers, known as the Bag Man, who turns out to be mentally unstable with a violent streak.) Yet the fact that Arturo is himself marginalized by society due to his body adds another wrinkle to Dunn’s complex notions of power and language.

Taken on its own, On Cussing is a concise look at an undervalued element of language, championing words that have an underdog-like status and, perhaps, inspiring readers to create dazzlingly profane prose in their own works. But in light of her own work in fiction, On Cussing is also a lexicon and roadmap to the ways that societies can repress or extol certain words, and in doing so repress or extol certain people. The complexities of that arrangement are as byzantine as history; the results of them are as painful as an exorcism. But at a time when populism is on the rise and some onetime champions of the marginalized worldwide have shown an authoritarian side, Dunn’s pocket history resonates more deeply than one might think.

A version of this essay previously appeared at Vol.1 Brooklyn.

Tobias Carroll

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Writer of things. Managing editor, Vol.1 Brooklyn. Author of the collection TRANSITORY and the novel REEL.