“Dora,” by Lidia Yuknavitch

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Wanna know the difference between adult wisdom and young adult wisdom? You have the ability to look back at your past and interpret it. I have the ability to look at my present and live it with my whole body. Wanna know what we have in common? Dead dreams. Trust me when I say no adult likes to talk about that.

Lidia Yuknavitch’s Dora: A Headcase is an uncomfortable, edgy, affecting novel. The Chronology of Water had the same charge: take challenging subject matter and build a narrative akin to unpacking tension-wracked nesting dolls, cumulative sadness and worry with each new section. Yuknavitch rattles us, and in this debut novel, as in her previous memoir, it is a worthy and beautiful ride.

Dora shares an affinity with The Catcher in the Rye, Yuknavitch leading with the faults and flaws of the protagonist, making us care for her narrator even as she is presented: problems first. Dora is the shaved head misfit daughter of a father decomposing in infidelity, a mother fading and a peerage each nicknamed by hypertext and cultural rebellion. Then there is Sig, Dora’s psychotherapist and the bearer of her sometimes misplaced rage; Sig sees sex in all Dora shares during their sessions, implications she rightfully resents. But when Jung sweeps in as the pseudo-charming “other” the physical and verbal jousting gains dangerous momentum. This is where Yuknavitch takes us, creating palpable figures of history, fictionally evolved, chasing them through the pages with her bright and malignant Dora, a symbol of all that is the rights of youthful passage.

Look, I text. My dad had a huge coronary. My mum fled 2 vienna. Stuk w my dads ho n demon midgets. Hav no voic. Sum perv trid 2 grab me. Things aren’t ql, ok?

At The Millions, Carolyn Ross’s “Walking Enigmas: On the Reading Habits of Teen Boys” says a mouthful:

At parent-teacher conferences earlier this year, I spoke with at least 10 sets of parents that lamented the uncommunicative nature of their teenage sons.

‘You would know more than we do.’

‘He speaks up in class?  That’s good because he doesn’t talk much at home.’

‘I ask him if he has work for class but he always just says “no.”’

It makes me think that this is why The Catcher in the Rye is a classic. People are just so thrilled to hear a teenage boy’s thoughts.

Then maybe they’re sorry they asked.

Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch

Like Salinger’s Holden and Chbosky’s Charlie and de la Pena’s Sticky Boy and Green / Levithan’s Will Graysons, Yuknavitch has written a frightfully insightful voice of youth, mimicking the language of our texters and status-updaters but with an angst and propensity for violence so explosive it puts Holden to shame. As a product of the 1950s, Holden’s bad boy image is as an underage drinker who calls a prostitute to his room, but Dora captures on film the carnage of extreme “prank Viagra” where Siggy’s member has to be drained by a nurse’s needle. Leagues apart indeed. But both Holden and Dora are carrying forward from the same moment of maturation, the same awful youthful realization that the world is imperfect, that people cheat and divorce and fail and die, seemingly without escape, so what is there to do but set the world on fire and lay back in pretended cool, in defiant repose?

And while Yuknavitch’s mimicry of torturous youthful folly is spot-on, her language of these youngsters gloriously robust and biting, the real beauty of Dora is in the complexity of emotions, the layering of a protagonist in such a way that we feel for and with her. Yuknavitch allows us to know, through all the anger and pain, all the seething and hatred, that Dora’s core is intensely human, fragile, brimming with guilt and pity and compassion and empathy, all those qualities we often, in our haste to condemn, forget teenagers possess in equal amounts to their resentment for parents, teachers, psychotherapists. Yuknavitch reminds us that, through most of our teenage years, hate and love are maddeningly intertwined, and as adults we are loath to understand and simply ludicrous to offer cures.

I know what Sig would say. He’d say we live out classic family romances, and there’s no way around it. On the other hand, goddamn it, is everything in life really all that fucking oedipal? Because if it is, you know, just shoot me.

J. A. Tyler is the author of The Zoo, a Going (Dzanc Books). His work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Diagram, Denver Quarterly, New York Tyrant, Fairy Tale Review, and others. Find him online at or on Twitter at @J_A_Tyler. More from this author →