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Transgressive Teens

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 3, March/April 2013
p. 16 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0036

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Lidia Yuknavitch’s debut novel participates in a burgeoning new feminist zeitgeist. To appreciate this emergence, consider the power women wielded in the recent presidential election, voting 55 percent for Obama, while “The War on Women” became a catchphrase attached to comments made by Republican congressional candidates on the topic of rape. In terms of literature, note the recent surge of controversial nonfiction books on women’s issues, including Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (2011), Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women (2012), and Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography (2012), to name only a few. Or the recent critical theory titles engaging similar issues, most notably Kate Zambreno’s Heroines (2012) and Ariana Reines’s translation of Tiqqun’s Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl (2012). Not to mention the impressive number of works focused on the concerns and exploits of young women, novels such as Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead (2012) and Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women (2012), or Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series Girls (2012). Amidst this swell of conversation, Dora: A Headcase—both an imaginative work of literary realism and a feminist rewriting of, or response to, Freud’s famous case study of the same name—contributes a riotous, pathos-drenched attack on patriarchy from the perspective of a disaffected teenage girl.

My first reaction upon finishing the book: if this had been published by one of the Big Three publishers, such as Margaret K. McElderry Books (an imprint of Simon and Schuster, and the publisher of Ellen Hopkins’s wildly popular YA novels Crank (2004), Glass (2007), etc.) it could easily have become a runaway best seller, describable as a contemporary female version of The Catcher in the Rye (1951). And as I will explain, I can imagine the movie adaptation being similarly popular. In fact, the choice to publish this book with the relatively small Hawthorne Books out of Portland, Oregon, Yuknavitch’s hometown, rather than one of the majors, raises interesting questions about the benefits and limitations of independent publishing.

For me, the narrator’s voice marks the greatest strength of the book. Yuknavitch’s ear for young adult vernacular remains convincing from start to finish. Take this brief passage from the beginning of chapter 8 as an example: “But check it: lo and behold, just on the other side of the faux indoor garden in the center of the restaurant…like a mini Eden but without the snake…through the shitty ass ficus leaves, is Sig.” The slang, cadence, and references all convey a believable portrait of a particular type of contemporary young woman. Considering the tension arising from the role of silence and the power to speak in both the original Freudian text and in Yuknavitch’s revision, I find it an extremely compelling choice to foreground the narrative voice as the main source of creative energy in the book. By emphasizing voice to the point where it seems accurate to describe Dora: A Headcase as a voice-driven novel, Yuknavitch cleverly draws our attention to the central problematic at the heart of Freud’s study—namely, Dora’s inability to speak as a signifier of her subordinate position within a patriarchal system that sought to silence her and then speak on her behalf—without ever falling victim to didacticism. In other words, Yuknavitch never calls attention to this connection; rather, through its resonance, it becomes apparent to the reader, thus conferring both subtlety and significance.

Though I consider the narrative voice the central driving force of the novel, it would be inaccurate to suggest the plot gets buried or messy under the weight of lyricism. Quite the contrary, actually. One of the things I found most surprising about Dora: A Headcase, given my expectation based on Yuknavitch’s previous experimental short story collections as well as her commitment to publishing innovative literature as co-editor of Chiasmus Press, was the startlingly clear shape of its narrative structure. With linear storytelling so conventionally rendered, it reads like a treatment for a screenplay. A scene begins, builds, and ends. Then that scene aligns with the next scene to...


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