Dreaming beyond fiction and nonfiction

Bruja is the Spanish word for witch, and it’s possible that the witch in Wendy C. Ortiz’s latest book is Wendy herself. Not only does Ortiz watch a cheetah chasing a possum through a window, she manages to catch a bear whispering into the ear of another bear, and she is present while a sea turtle turns into a seal. She survives several shark attacks, jumps into a car that flies over rooftops, has an affair with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and attempts to murder her mother. She flies in an invisible plane to the East Coast, and at one point she pushes a button and everything in the world turns into a blank white background. Her husband thinks their son is Jesus, and she watches swordfish the size of trucks leap out of a fountain. A cat asks her to nurse it, and so she nurses the cat on one breast, and a newborn baby on the other.

What the hell is this book? Oh, it’s a dreamoir, Ortiz tells us, defining the term in this way:

a narrative derived from the most malleable and revelatory details of one’s dreams, catalogued in bold detail. A literary adventure through the boundaries of memoir, where the self is viewed from a position anchored into the deepest recesses of the mind.

The genius of a term like dreamoir is that it places the text beyond conventional definitions of fiction and nonfiction. A memoir is nonfiction by definition, and yet it usually expresses only one person’s perspective on interactions and events experienced by many. Some sensational memoirs have been exposed as frauds, and this lends an air of disbelief to the genre. But only one person experiences a dream. And, if an author is recounting her own dreams, this must be nonfiction, because these dreams really happened, right?

But what takes place in dreams, by definition, doesn’t really happen — at least not as the dreams are taking place. Are all dreams already fiction? And what gaps must always exist between the experience of a dream, and the description of it?

It might be redundant to say that Bruja follows a dream logic — the entire book consists of untitled dreams, divided into chapters organized by month over about four years. Some of these dreams are only a sentence long, and linger near the center of the page on their own; none of the dreams takes up more than two pages. And, as if to emphasize the cataloguing process, there’s an index at the end, where you can find out, for example, how many times Olympia appears in the dreams (10), or Michael Moore (2), anger (6), windows (12), the corner of Woodman and Sherman Way (1), Catholic school (1), Gertrude Stein (1), glass (10), sobs (5), Sharon Olds (1), Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (1), Taco Bell (1), vomit (2), cat (16), guilt (3), magnifying glass (3), LSD (1), tofu (1), murder (3), writing (13), cupboards (1), and Seattle (1).

In Bruja, Ortiz reveals dream logic by refusing to make dreams logical, presenting a narrative without direct interpretation, except for the analysis that exists within the dreams themselves. Some of the dreams portray common stresses, taken to the next level of anxiety so that they almost become meditative, such as this dream, quoted in its entirety:

I packed my bags at least three times. I was booked on a trip to New York but I wondered if I would ever make it because the damn bags needed to be packed and unpacked and packed again.

And some of the dreams are perched on the edge between surrealism and violence—here’s another dream, in its entirety:

I was a pallbearer. The body was contained in identical gift boxes, each the size of a watch box.

My job was to put the body in order.

As I worked, I noticed: a box etched with the number 8, a box edged with a rose.

Some of the dreams convey a sense of awe, such as the one where “I wanted to buy a camera somewhere in Paris. Something was happening in the sky.” What is happening in the sky is that there are 10 moons, each one curved into the other, a rainbow of crescents.

And some of the dreams can only be described as traumatic, such as the one that starts, “It was daytime and I was murdering my mother,” an incredible opening line if there ever was one. In this dream, Ortiz plunges a knife into her mother’s chest, over and over, but her mother will not die. This happens all over the house. Her mother urges her on.

Whether it’s about murder, gazing at the sky in wonder, or packing for a trip, the prose in Bruja is always matter-of-fact—almost clinical, detached. At times Ortiz expresses a childlike excitement, a sense of fear or danger, but the brevity of the descriptions pushes past sentimentality. It’s the distance that comes from recalling a dream. We walk around one house and it becomes another, into a car that takes us around the corner to a store in another city. None of this is surprising, right? Not in a dream.

In Bruja, Ortiz offers no attempt to create a coherent narrative—instead, she allows dreams to remain dreams. Freud and Jung and the latest talk show experts advertising HUGE RESULTS THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE are not consulted. The meaning of each of these dreams is up to the reader to determine, or refuse. So, when a rabbit has a “one to two-foot-long elongated neck,” and Ortiz is trying “not to get sidetracked by that,” we don’t have to get sidetracked, either. When Ortiz discovers a tabloid newspaper showing famous people with elongated necks like this rabbit, we get to imagine which famous people. If we want to. I’m pretty certain that Ortiz has thought about why she has repeated dreams about killing her mother, or having sex with men in her childhood bedroom, or even why she’s always trying to find her cat in other people’s houses, but she doesn’t burden the reader with her ruminations.

All of us have had dreams, and many of the patterns in Ortiz’s dreams will be instantly recognizable. By presenting her dreams without explication, Ortiz allows each of us to become the bruja.

Books in this review:
  • Bruja
    by Wendy C. Ortiz

    October 31, 2017
    242 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is most recently the author of The End of San Francisco.

Follow Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on Twitter: @mbsycamore

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