Dora is an utterly remarkable headcase of a book.
Our narrator is a thieving, drug-abusing, partying, art-making, sexually confused punk seventeen-year-old. Her voice is a caricature of teen slang and attitude in the digital age. She cuts herself, graffitis her bedroom wall with purple ink, and refuses to do any schoolwork. When her desperate parents dump her in a psychiatrist’s office, she spikes his tea with a cocktail of drugs that sends him fleeing to the emergency room, then records his ordeal for an art project.
And yet… somehow we sympathize with Dora as the protagonist.
Truly, it’s remarkable that Yuknavitch accomplishes this. But she does. Even through a thick screen of sarcasm we sense that Dora is a well-meaning kid who just wants to be loved by her parents, and was abused and neglected instead. Her story simply aches with all the ways adults screw up children.
Especially old white men with their heteronormative power structures.
Enter Dr. Sigmund Freud, who through a stroke of… magical realism? …is practicing psychiatry in Seattle in 2012. Rather than attempting to understand Dora as a young woman, he skims her therapy sessions for sexual symbolism and evidence of oedipal dynamics, then preaches his interpretations back to her. Understandably, this irritates Dora to no end. It is both painful and satisfying to watch as she takes her revenge on his phallic obsessions by creatively taking aim at his phallus.
If Yuknavitch’s first stroke of genius is Dora’s vivid characterization, her second is Freud’s. The old doctor comes to life beautifully. He is, of course, a symbol of outdated patriarchal worldviews. But he is so much more than that. He suffers, he strives, and he forms a strange bond with Dora that needs to be read to be believed.
Throw in a band of complex colorful friends, a few problematic parents and parent figures, an elaborate art project, money-hungry media moguls, some run-ins with the law, and even a brief appearance by a modern-day Jung, and you’ve got Dora: A Headcase. The plot races along as if high on blow, which it kind of is about half the time. It really is a page-turner by the end—a psychological thriller in a very unique sense of the term.