Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon
Published by Sun & Moon Classics in 1999
*Gordon became a bestselling author when her book Lord of Misrule won the 2010 National Book Award. Bogeywoman, despite being on the Los Angeles Times list of best books in 2000, is virtually unknown, and a simple Google search shows there is almost no information about it. I sent an e-mail to the author recently to see if she’ll agree to do an interview, but in the meantime I’m really proud to be able to share this review of my favorite book with you and add a little to the conversation about this brilliant work!
For most of my life, I have been that person who hates listening to most people read aloud. Remember the kids in class in elementary school stuttering along? (I actually kicked a boy in 4th grade because he couldn’t read; my behavior has since improved). Then there were those kids in high school who tried to read at 100 miles per hour to prove how smart they were, inevitably skipping over all punctuation and killing the rhythm. Even some authors at their own readings have a hard time making their words more lively than a used tissue. But when I got hearing aids a few years ago, I was told I needed to read aloud to strengthen the nerves in my ears that were still alive but very weak due to my hearing deficit. My husband wanted to cheer me on by volunteering as my solo audience. I started with Lynda Barry’s novel Cruddy, one of my favorite books included firmly in my “Girls Gone Wild” self-created genre. Not Girls Gone Wild the franchise, but truly girls (about 12 to 18) who are nearly feral. My husband loved Cruddy. And thus, we have been reading aloud to each other since. Our most recent “bedtime story” was Bogeywoman, an experimental, innovative, deeply moving novel.
The story begins with the narrator proclaiming that she is the Bogeywoman and that she was sent to an insane asylum. Someone named Doctor Zuk got her kicked out, but then Doctor Zuk got kicked out too. The narrator says, “But first she saved me, and that’s when I lost her — if I ever had her — unless I am her. Am I Zuk? (13). Really, this is enough to make a wimpy reader quit. It already sounds existential, and it’s only the first paragraph.
Then, our narrator begins (almost as if in mid-sentence) to tell her reader the story of how she ended up in an asylum when she wasn’t even insane (according to her — she’s the narrator). It all starts at Camp Chunkagunk, the narrator’s favorite place in the world. She’s on her 9th summer there at age 16, a true devotee. The camp has all kinds of strange names for activities: Lake Twinny, Chipmunk vs. Big Bear, Wood Wiz, Upside Down Day, Lake Sci, and Evening Pro. The narrator throws all of these terms at you as if you’re a camper yourself and don’t need much explanation. She also tosses out names — Margaret, Merlin, Suzette — but doesn’t tell you who they are. They are her sister, father, and step-mother, a hands-off family, making Ursula quite orphan-like except her dad is world famous for a puppet show he does on TV. It can get confusing. Let’s be fair, though; this narrator did explain she’d been sent to an insane asylum, so you have to just go with it.
“Going with it” is a rewarding part of Bogeywoman. A lot of times I feel like a first person narrator is really just the author using a character as a puppet to say what he/she likes. A book I know that got a lot of criticism over such puppetry was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Jonathan Safran Foer was accused of putting his 28-year-old voice into 9-year-old Oskar’s thoughts. The narrator of Bogeywoman is entirely her own teen. I met author Jaimy Gordon at a reading. She looks like the kind of lady whose mother signed her up for ballet and equestrian when she was two — no sign of the nutbar that is the narrator.
To help you out, should you choose to read this book (and you should), let me give you some summary of what happens to land the narrator in an asylum:
She’s at Camp Chunkagunk, age 16, floating on her back in Sourhunk Lake, when she realizes she wants to put her hand between another girl’s legs. It hits her like a freeway accident: she’s a lesbian. The narrator then goes back and explains that her name is Ursula Koderer, but everyone calls her the Bogeywoman. She earned the name when she was 7 after she put a snake down a chimney in the camp counselors’ cabin and thundered, “I’m the Bogeywoman.” But after she realizes she’s a lesbian, that’s what Bogeywoman actually means to Ursula. She’s an unhygienic girl whose descriptions of herself would make you think she were a potato with sprouts.
Ursula thinks she falls in love with her cabin mate, Lou Rae Greenrule, who’s also a strange girl. Ursula finds Lou Rae one day putting clay she found in the ground on her face as a beauty aid, but she’s sitting stark naked with only her long, long hair covering her. Ursula gets Lou Rae to head toward the perimeters of camp to find more clay, which is where Ursula makes a move on the younger girl. Lou Rae acts like she wants the physical contact, but then changes her mind, leaving Ursula out to dry!
Later, Ursula seeks out Willis Marie Bundgus (the “wood wizardess” who teaches tracking skills at the camp) for some solidarity after getting ditched. She finds Willis talking to a camp handyman, a really gumpy guy named Ottie Grayson (aren’t the names just fabulous?). Willis is trying to put the moves on ol’ Ottie, but turns out, Lou Rae promised Ottie she’d hook up with him! Ursula puts it all together and goes on a rampage. She runs away from camp, heading past the perimeter, which is punishable by expulsion from Camp Chunkagunk. As she walks, Ursula carves a map of the camp into her arms. She bleeds all over, so she takes off her shirt (she doesn’t wear a bra) to wrap her arms up. And that’s how the police find her: walking down the road, naked from the belly button up, bleeding all over the place. This is how Ursula winds up in an expensive insane asylum in Baltimore.
Now, why did I summarize so much? I never summarize so much! It’s you’re job to read the book, right? Well, the beginning of Bogeywoman can be really hard to slog through. Even my husband, dutiful listener that he is, expressed hesitancy about my continuing after the first chapter (which is 55 pages). It doesn’t seem that complicated, though, right? Here’s the thing: readers are in Ursula’s head, so she talks like Ursula. She makes up a lot of her own words, and her phrasing is a bit off. Jaimy Gordon makes use of comma splices to keep the reading practically running. There’s little room to breath. Here’s an example of Ursula’s thoughts when she finds out Lou Rae is hiding in the bushes, waiting to hook up with Ottie, and he’s walking around to find her. Ursula is hiding in a tree watching it happen:
I guess I’d watched too many Saturday serials where Hopalong Cassidy drops on Bullet from the fiery hayloft of the burning livery stable. When Ottie, whistling, passed under the apple tree I uttered a mad gargle — Keep your mitts off her — and without exactly thinking about it I dropped on his shoulders, boxed his bubblegum-pink ears with my fists, got his skinny neck in a death grip with my skinny thighs, hung upside down gasping Keep your mitts off her and pounding his stomach, and finally I let go with my thighs and plunged to earth, tackling him on the way down. “Whoa, whoa,” he was yelling, “cool it, Bogey-woman, you’re right off your noodle, whaddaya mean, off who?” The funny thing is, I wasn’t mad at him, I swear I wasn’t. It was that dirty rotten Lou Rae I was mad at, who had loved me for twelve-and-a-half minutes and left me, but I wasn’t going to put a hand on her, was I? Lemme die first.
In the above quote, you get an idea of the pacing of the sentences. However, Ursula makes up a lot of words too! Here are some of them and their meanings:
- buggy = crazy
- bug house = insane asylum
- dreambox mechanic/adjuster = psychiatrist
- Bug Motels = Ursula’s group who play music on instruments made out of hospital items in the bughouse
- girlgoyle = female
- fuddy = male
- spooky-fluted = threatening way of speaking
- * Unbeknownst to Everybody = lesbian
- sumpn = something
- godzillas sake = for God’s sakes
- momps = breasts
- oink = fuck (as in, “go oink yourself”)
- cheese = jeez
Ursula also gets names wrong, like calling her psychiatrist, Dr. Feuffer, “Foofer” and Dr. Zuk’s home “Caramel-Creamistan” (that should be Karamul-Karamistan). She mixes up famous people, too, like Sigmund Food and Margaret Meat. The made up names and words begin right away. You’re not given time to adjust and slowly learn them, you “go with it” or quite reading. If you read the book more than once, you realize Ursula gives away the whole plot early on, including the details, but in a first read, you’re just trying to figure out your head from your lower parts. I love this deep inventiveness from Jaimy Gordon.
The absolute best part of this novel are the diverse voices. Oh, God, Jaimy Gordon is so good at it. Let me give you some samples with the preface that if you read this book aloud it is so fun. You can’t NOT do the voices because Gordon spells words phonetically. Please be aware that I triple checked that there are no typos in these quotes; this is how people’s voices are written:
From Reginald — “the Regicide” — an African American orderly in the bughouse insulting Ursula:
I use to think you smart but now I see you don’t have the sense to come in out the rain. You don’t know how many pea beans make five. You don’t have the sense God gave a nanny goat. You the type climb on the mental clothesline pole to see which way the storm be passing. You ain’t got the motherwit to track a rhino in four foot of snow. You don’t know which way you at, girl. You couldn’t get there if I put you there.
(My favorite Regicide insult is when, to tell Ursula how dirty she is, he says, “You dusty as a peanut too”).
From Chug, an African American man makes a living “junking” (looking for crap to sell) who thinks Ursula is a prostitute. The white fuzz is lint from her sweatshirt stuck in drying blood after she’s carved on her arms again (self-mutilation):
You the sorriest-looking raggedy-ass girl-boy ho I ever see and that white fuzz on you arms scare a hound dog off a gut wagon. Now gone home. Get.
From Doctor Zuk, a older female dreambox mechanic Ursula falls in love with, who we learn is from Karamul-Karamistan (not a real place but definitely something Soviet-like):
With you, Miss Bogeywoman, is all game. Is funny hunger for craziness, itch for crazy. …Don’t worry, I tell no one. You are crazy like hare in March, like weasel in henhouse maybe. You want to be crazy. Is some kind mating dance with you.
From Suzette, Ursula’s step-mother, who tells Ursula she’s happy Ursula’s not in the bughouse anymore (instead of an “er” sound she gives an “oi” sound):
That place was fine for a month or two…and, as I recall, the poisonnel — wasn’t his name Reginald? — was extremely kind. So helpful! But for two years, as a sort of sleepover boarding school without the school, the place was a little overpriced, don’t you think? I mean, Oi-sula, the bills are breaking your poor father’s back.
And each and every character is like this: a unique voice that you can actually hear in your head! No two characters sound the same. It’s the most amazing use of language to make characters come to life that I’ve ever experienced in a book.
I want to end by saying that Bogeywoman is about a teenage girl trying to survive as a lesbian using self-mutilation in the 1970s, a time when you were considered literally crazy if you were gay. The novel doesn’t tell you it’s set in the 1970s, but during the reading I attended, Gordon said this book was inspired by her sister, who actually spent time in an asylum for being a lesbian. But, it’s a really funny book, too. Ursula pursues Dr. Zuk with unwavering love, gets into trouble with the Bug Motels, and escapes the bughouse once or twice. I’ll end with this passage about a strange resident in the bughouse:
Why Mrs. Wilmot was still in the Teenage Ward after all these years, nobody knew. Wilmot was a skinny-shanked, potbellied old girl of around sixty, in a buttonless (or she’d have unbuttoned it) pink chemise, with skin like a wet brown bag sliding down her bones. Now that woman was crazy, which, come to think of it, did nothing for her prestige with us Bug Motels. Mostly what she did was sit on the bench just inside the entrance to the Adolescent Wing and pull up her dress and waggle the peapod, yes I mean her graypink coochie in its skimpy ring of grizzled whiskers, in full view of us all.