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Book Review

‘Dora: A Headcase’ by Lidia Yuknavitch

In “Dora: A Headcase,” Lidia Yuknavitch gives voice to a Freud patient who famously couldn’t speak, and presents her as a radical everywoman.

Andy Mingo

In “Dora: A Headcase,” Lidia Yuknavitch gives voice to a Freud patient who famously couldn’t speak, and presents her as a radical everywoman.

Ida Bauer, the 18-year-old hysteric Sigmund Freud called Dora in his first and most famous case study, came in for treatment in 1900. She couldn’t speak, perhaps from the indignity of having reported the advances of a family friend to parents who didn’t believe her. She found Freud off-putting and stopped seeing him after less than three months.

Lidia Yuknavitch, author of the memoir “The Chronology of Water” and founder of experimental publishing house Chiasmus Press, has updated Ida for the Internet era and made her the narrator of her debut novel, set in Seattle. In “Dora: A Headcase,” Ida has a foul mouth, a fondness for prescription pills, and a real knack with high-tech recording equipment. She’s also a cutter. These attributes qualify her as a Scary Young Person, the kind to which “60 Minutes” might devote a special report.

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Ida doesn’t seem to go to school. Instead, she spends her days taking drugs and causing trouble with a group of friends she calls the posse, the social dynamics of which might cause any newsmagazine fan to break out in a cold sweat. “The posse is not ‘my peers.’ We are more like a microorganism. . . . 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.”

Hold your fire, Lesley Stahl; you might be the one with the problem. In an early scene that finds the posse getting drunk and naked at Nordstrom, Ida addresses her uptight readers: “Kids these days, huh? What? Would you rather we were checking out your Internet porn? Or hacking into your email? And by the way, just who are you calling troubled teen, Mr. and Mrs. Pharm zombies?” In the Ida-sphere, the adults — often drunk and high themselves — are brimming with hypocrisy.

But Ida is more than just an avatar of generational conflict; she’s also a lover of music and art.

She writes impassioned letters to Francis Bacon in purple marker on her bedroom walls. She listens to Black Flag, Elliott Smith, and the Velvet Underground. She has passionate opinions about avant garde filmmaker Maya Deren. These advanced tastes age Ida out of her demographic, but they also reveal the true purpose of her character: Ida is less a teenager than a radical everywoman whose outrageous antics expose the fault lines in the dominant culture. The novel isn’t an anthropological exploration of the tech-fueled peculiarities of Gen Z. Instead, it’s a fantasy, one that allows Yuknavitch to exact revenge on Freud.

Freud has been called out as a sexist for at least a century. Yuknavitch doesn’t disagree. She describes his office above “a chic Seattle restoration,” filled with Pottery Barn lamps, as “bouge hell.” He often speaks to Ida in the oppressive language of a case study: “I believe the early disgust you experienced in the first sexual instance . . . came about as a symptom of repression in the erotogenic oral zone, which as you yourself related, has been overstimulated in your infancy from thumbsucking.”

Ida retaliates by recording their sessions and making them into sound collage. She mockingly calls him “Siggy” and “Herr Doktor.” But she doesn’t stop there. By the end of the book, she has sent him to the hospital and gotten him arrested.

Ida has other meaningful relationships beyond her psychotherapist. There’s Obsidian, her Native American love interest, who doesn’t talk much. There’s also Marlene, a “black tranny” and Rwandan refugee, who acts as a proxy for Ida’s zoned-out mother, lending her wigs and books of erotic art photos. But Ida’s voice is so strong — and often naïve — that it drowns out any chance these characters might have had of coming fully to life.

About that voice: It’s infectious, but it can also be irritating. Yuknavitch is determined to use slang; Ida says “dude” a lot, and “like,” and “way.” She is also in the bad habit of making up portmanteaus, perhaps to strain against linguistic convention. This combination results in some unfortunate constructions, such as when she reflects upon Billie Holiday: “[Her] life was the suck. The only beautiful thing about it lived in her throatsong.”

Clearly, Yuknavitch possesses a great well of empathy for misfits and a great passion for radical art. This has resulted in an enthusiastic, sometimes vexing novel that nevertheless will win over even the grumpiest lefty.

Eugenia Williamson, a writer-editor living in Somerville, can be reached at eugen
ia.williamson@gmail.com.
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