Review: Dora: A Headcase, by Lidia Yuknavitch
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Reimagining a famous patient as the subject of her own story
Lidia Yuknavitch’s coming-of-age novel doubles as a feminist rewriting of Freud’s psychoanalysis, dropping his most famous case study into current-day Seattle. For all of its familiar elements — a quick-tongued teen narrator, youthful angst, drugs, sex, and shitty parents — the story frees itself from the pretty little ties typically binding the genre of girl-lit. Dora is unlike any girl you’d ever dare to dream up, and Yuknavitch’s full-bodied style of narrative, wrought with twisted grammar and jarring language, is disordered, unapologetic, and the only thing that could bring her to life.
Yuknavitch, author of the novel The Chronology of Water and member of a Portland-based crew of powerhouse writers, believes in girl myths, inasmuch as she believes they should be ripped apart, turned to scrap, and repurposed for radical structuring. In this new novel, she gives us Ida, a bald-headed heroine who carries around a Dora the Explorer backpack like an ID badge. “Dora” is seventeen and into drugs, mostly whatever comes in the tiny orange canisters found in family medicine cabinets. Her father’s friend molested her years ago, and ever since, she’s been in therapy to be given a fix.
Her visits to the analyst are a house of horrors’ amusement ride. “Siggy,” or “The Sig,” is Dora’s “deflated balloon” analyst whose perverted interpretations of her sexuality provide material for the art film she’s making. But her “issues,” if you want to call them that, are real. The big one is her voice: she loses it every time she’s turned on, mostly by her friend Obsidian, a goth-girl who makes up one fourth of Dora’s tribe of transgressive, pill-popping techie kids with money and the wits to match. “In the world of the posse, it doesn’t matter if you are male or female. Or anything in between. We share drugs. We share bodies. We make art attacks.” Dora’s friends are the formerly muted Anna Os and Emma Ecksteins, newly realized. They play drunk hide-and-seek at “Nordfucks,” break out of juvenile houses, and screen films under bridges.
In this story, the psychoanalyst is every bit as twisted, the parents just as addled, the world as hysterical, as the girl herself. It’s a relief there is little redemption to be found in Dora’s surroundings, because that means she can run in search of something better. Truth, for instance. Dora acts and speaks and thinks with the throat-knot intensity of someone fighting for her life. And in ways, Yuknavitch reminds us, this is “coming of age.” Adult complacency, fraught with bigoted rage and hypocrisy, threatens to silence everyone at one point or another. And Dora knows the stakes of being seventeen: “If you can’t outsmart a middle aged shrink by the time you are eighteen, how the hell are you going to get through a life?” The book’s comparisons to Palahniuk’s Fight Club might be distracting, but not entirely overwrought.
This book fights. It reams, intent not on destroying but rebuilding: girl stories, boy stories, love stories. When Yuknavitch writes, she writes the whole body in all of its retching, raging, pulsing, dripping, twitching, aching, messied glory, only it’s not glory she’s concerned with, but a radical use of craft that proves a perfect weapon for taking on what Dora’s up against. With coiled periphrases and playful kennings (“vodkaskin”, “fuckgasm”, “throatsong”), Yuknavitch irreverently bends language in a way that’s transcendent, forceful, and full of darkish delight.
While Dora performs multiple feats of plot and imagination and voice, it holds itself remarkably tight to its own braided meditations on feminism, literature, art, and therapy culture. In her tongue-snapping narrator, Yuknavitch has steered a new giant onto a literary genre’s roster of teen anti-heroes, and created ten new meanings to the word “bad-ass.” If you read this and don’t find yourself wondering where a girl like Dora was when you were growing up, it probably means she was you. So raw is the voice Yuknavitch has written for her and ripe with a particular kind of sorrow that reading it is like turning a mirror to your seventeen-year-old self, however long forgotten. I’d worry a part of that girl was stolen if I wasn’t so damn thrilled that Lidia Yuknavitch gave her a place to speak.
— Karina Briski is a writer. She currently lives here, and in Brooklyn.