Dora: A Headcase


Lidia Yuknavitch
Dora: A Headcase
237pp. Hawthorne Books. 9780983477570

Lidia Yuknavitch is someone who takes huge and necessary risks with her work and who pushes writing to the edges of the places writing can go, who makes writing into a fist and a body and a blood trail, and this is no less true of her fiction than it is of the other work of hers I have read. Dora is (I accidentally typed "id" there, very Freudian) messy and scary and hilarious and real and it is for the girl in many of us who is just waiting for her chance to wreak motherfucking havoc on this shitshow of a world that tells us our bodies and our lives and our stories are not worth defending or believing or telling.

Dora is, in a sense, a revisionist history of a history of revision: the revision of women's stories by that crabby old coot Sigmund Freud, whose legacy yet terrorizes legions of English graduate students and permeates the dominant culture so thoroughly his influence is almost indistinguishable from the kinds of things we call common sense--his work, as the poet W.H. Auden wrote, has become a "whole climate of opinion." Yuknavitch's Ida is a history-wrecking version of Freud's favorite hysteric, Ida Bauer, the de-heroined focus of his famous case study in which he renamed her Dora. Diagnosed by Freud as suffering "hysteria," that most female of complaints, the real-life Ida's most evident symptom was an inability to speak--shit like that, you don't have to make up metaphors. Yuknavitch's Ida is, in her turn, a foul-mouthed and funny hellion getting up to all kinds of trouble in modern-day Seattle: a pill-popping, Doc-wearing, obsessive documentarian, who's delivered to her therapist "Siggy" every Thursday by her father "so he can drive away from what he's made." Ida has no trouble speaking, except in the presence of love: when she's around Obsidian, the object of her affections, she goes silent altogether. For all her madcap adventures, she, like the best of us, is undone by her own wants.

And I should say up front that, when it comes to Lidia Yuknavitch, I am wildly biased: I am publishing her myself, this month, in conversation with Vanessa Veselka, which is what I have spent the bulk of the last few weeks working on--seventeen hours and twelve hundred passes on a flatbed press with no handle; four hours trimming guts on, appropriately enough, a guillotine; six hours handbinding with a number of very generous friends willing to work for cheap beer and Newman-O's; six hours stuffing envelopes. My wrists are one big ache and I can't make a fist, even now as I'm typing this. (If I had to make a fist. In defense of either Ida, or of myself, or just because I picked a fight.) I haven't cleaned my apartment in I don't want to think about how long and I haven't done my laundry in longer. I wrote the first sentence of this review three months ago and left it, sad and alone, at the top of the page until now. Grownup much? Not so. And yet. I know a lot of women like me, and we are all making it work somehow. I saw a lot of myself in Ida: wild, messy, a mess, dumb with love--literally, in her case; but of course who was able, when they were fourteen, fifteen, twenty-five, thirty-three, to say anything close to the things they wanted to say. I am not really that interested in being a grownup but I think a lot about which pieces of my own crazy-reckless-combat-booted Ida-self are doing me in and which are keeping me whole. It's usually a little of both. There's the rub, I guess.

There's a scene midway through the book where Ida revenges herself upon Siggy in a particularly Freudian way, and it involves--let's say it involves a trip to the hospital, and a very literal phallus, and it is really, really fucking funny. I was reading Dora at a bar in my neighborhood, notable more for the value of its happy hour than the appeal of its clientele, when a gentleman sidled up to me and asked what I was reading. Because, obviously, why else would a lady be by herself, at a bar, at five in the afternoon, reading a fucking book, than out of the desperate hope that she might meet a boon companion with whom to while away the precious free hours of her evening. There was something almost delicious about reading a riff on castration while being hit on by some douche with a craft beer and bad facial hair. "I'm reading about a girl who cuts off a guy's dick," I said--which is not at all a remotely accurate description of the scene, Siggy emerges intact in all areas but that of his dignity--but it worked. He left me right alone after that. Ida, I think, would be proud.

I don't know how to be a grownup--or a critic, if that wasn't already obvious--but I know what I love, and I love people who are writing about edges, from the edges, and I love people who are writing love stories for the girls we used to be, the girls who live in us still. We is a dangerous word, I know, and I don't mean all of us are the same, that our stories are the same or our skins or bodies or histories. I know that. There are a lot of different ways to be a girl. But some of us, I think, can recognize ourselves so well in certain kinds of stories about certain kinds of girls, girls let loose and made furious, girls who barrel forward through an ocean of fucking up, who are too big for the options the world has given them. Us. Stories we need more of, more kinds of, more room for, because they don't get told enough. Dora's a story for you, then, if you're that girl; not the only one, for sure, but a great one. "What we need," Ida says, "is a break out. Out of our lives, out of Seattle, out of the dumb script of girl." That's as true for me now as it was for me then; there's no fewer people, for all the years between me and fifteen, trying to tell me how a lady should be in the world, and god help you if you are trying to be female and an artist at the same time.

Sometimes it's enough to find in a book like this a reminder that I am not alone, and if you are anything like me, neither are you. Idas a little, both of us, kicking our way through the walls.