Things Disney taught me important to this post:
1. Never trust an Ursula, they are typically irrational, sticky squid-like women, who cling to misfortune, and the bitterness of salted sea.
Good thing, the “ * unbeknownst to everyone” in the book Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon is named Ursie, so she’s only half the rare breed Ursula. I was so intrigued by the blurb of this book online, “A Dickens meets Lolita meets Girl Interrupted.” What sort of sick, child labor (of the sexual kind), coal-ash-burnt-face novel set in an asylum was Gordon running here? That was my first thought, my second thought was “Buy now with one click.”
Bogeywoman is the story of Ursie, known as Bogeywoman, and to herself a “ * unbeknownst to everyone.” When we meet her, she’s a loner with caveman hair, a camp tan, and a pond scum tent smell. She’s currently residing at “Camp Chunkagunk: A Tough Paradise for Girls” where her puppeteer father sends her every summer for “fresh air” aka, he’s rich and believes in sending his children off to believe touching the bottom of a moss eaten lake is a thrill. Bogeywoman is a tough almost-teenager who finds home in this camp and more importantly in the wilderness expert she follows around. She also finds her first real #wcw at Camp Chunkagunk and the verbal assault of Gordon starts there:
“And since I was literally wincing, my lips curling back in animal dread from my teeth, in went her tongue as smooth as a letter opener. O my oasis — silk crossed the boarder, pepper oil, dried apricots, olives, tokay, how long we went on trading like this at the water hole I don’t know, not long when …” [Gordon, 72].
In a camp tragedy, as there is one every summer when you’re a summer camp native, Bogeywoman carves a map into her arm and is sent away to live in a high class asylum or “bug house” just outside of Baltimore called Rohring Rohring. I know, it sounds like a plane jet setting, which is exactly the steam of this novel. At Rohring Rohring, we greet the land of misfit toys that is the younger ward and the Sesame Street gang of “Sigmund Foods” that watch over their cares through psychoanalysis. There’s also “the Regicide” who is there to hold the cigarette lighter, and the ass of some of the more cat eye patients – Ursie not included because everyone knows her as a “he/she.”
At Rohring Rohring, Ursie gets into all sorts of trouble from laundry chutes, to Bug House bands, to naked quiet rooms, and she falls in love with Dr. Zuk, a woman of tough accent and spider veins. It’s complicated by other female companionship – of the cat eye and anorexic kind – and eventually, doesn’t blossom, but stampedes into something more illegal and swampy.
“…and again I thought of the elegant and voracious lines of a winter weasel or a mink that for the sheer fun of it kills ten times as much as it eats. You might suppose I would take this as a caution, but I felt only hungry wonder at sumpm new in the usually boring line of grownups — to be exact, a grown-up woman who had none of the martyred flab and grizzle about her of somebody’s wife, somebody’s ninth-grade teacher, or somebody’s mother” [Gordon, 75]
“You’d think I wouldn’t be able to see beauty so close up, just hair roots and blackheads and tiny red threads in the eyeballs, but tears webbed her gunky eyelashes like dew in the grass at night and even her sweat was flowers. When the kiss came it was hot and dry, then hot and wet, it sucked in all bodily terrains, a southwestern national park of a kiss and I forget to notice if it was any different because of the other one kissing had just called me a dirty jew” [Gordon, 106]
The plot isn’t what strikes me about this book. Honestly, it’s filled with made-up places and people who almost couldn’t be real. I say this because at the end one of the mainest of main characters jumps into a Princess Bride fire swamp hole but somehow reappears to get shoes? The whole plot thing is pretty secondary to the damn near perfect voices of the novel.
See Ursie’s description of O’s vagina:
“It looks like a perfect little keyhole — sumpm from a lady’s wiring desk.”
Gordon can turn something so biological into something so necessary in a matter of a capital letter and a period. (Not that the big V isn’t necessary, duh, we bleed and don’t die every month so we’re SUPER necessary). And I realize author’s have been trying to describe this thing better than movie hustlers, and Planned Parenthoods for decades, but Gordon does it every time. Every time the description is meaningful, thoughtful, beneficial, and a hazard type.
There is no point in triumphing over this language, because it was created with a hand of ease, disaster, and foolishness. It’s beautiful in all the wrong ways. I am obsessed with it.
Ursie is coming-of-age, coming-out, and coming-to-oblivion in Bogeywoman and her voice is so spot on that it’s actually creepy. She has her own language which the reader sucks into to almost become one of the Bug House residents. Every girl at Target today became a “girlgoyle” and the macho army men in the army town near my home were “fuddies.” Ursie, only in the middle of her teenage years, is one of the strongest voices I have ever read. She resonates not because she’s so full of the unknown, but because she’s so damn clear on who she is, it’s the hiding it from everyone else that becomes a safe trap she’s placed in. She is a “ * Unbeknownst to everyone,” except most of the people know, who truly “get” it.
“But come to think of it Emily could sing, I suddenly recalled, sing, yes, like a little girl, but not just any little girl, the little girl, the fabulous girlgoyle of myth and legend, that is, a high voice straight as a pencil that doesn’t quite land on the blue rule it’s aiming for but pierces to the numbest cochlea…” [Gordon, 191]
She hangs out with a hodgepodge of characters known as the “Bug Motels” who eventually start a band using hospital tools as instruments. She talks endlessly about hating her “Signmund Food Dreambox Mechanic” and yearns for a chance to speak to foreign, stoned-face, Dr. Zuk from a country that ends in -stan. There is a camaraderie in the friendships that instead of being born of sanity, are born from knowledge of how to work a system in order to stay in it. I was in the novel for the vulnerable maturity of these beings, and not for the plot. It was in seeing these people (not succeed as the rest of the world would deem what normal people should do) gain stillness that I was hoping came to them. Even in a quiet room, Ursie roams the halls, pacing away her thought box.
“She turned back around and she was a puzzle piece of sad lumps around her face, like all Bug Motels when they wonder how they fit in. But the thing about puzzle pieces is, you can turn them” [Gordon, 194].
The best way to proceed with this book is not with caution, but with a bullwhip. Yes, I wanted a quiet stillness to blanket those character’s orphaned of the heart, but I never got it. Instead, I got a bubbling cauldron of daring prose and a language so evocative and fresh that it still feels new even after this book was published in ’99. I have never read a novel with language this captivating and from the mind of a teenager so gummed up in her own “dream box” that she can’t even see her own personhood staring her in the face. I was moved. It’s fucking weird, but also fucking worth it. (My dad hates when I cuss in these reviews, but this one deserves a few f*cks).
This novel is one of communication mayhem, oral combustion, energetic brilliance. I would read Ursie inside and out, I would read the carved passages of her arms if it meant another novel with her. Sane or not, knowledgable or not, fifteen or adult, Bug House or Camp Chunkagunk, I would travel the snowed roads to read more of this voice that has my nerves surging. Jaimy Gordon is a master of the English tongue and that is the sole (soul) reason that this book should be not read, but devoured.
*Footnote: I’ve always wanted to tag something “planned parenthood” and now’s my chance.