November 02, 2016
Wendy C. Ortiz could be called a bruja in the sense that she is a conjurer, a master of creating an illusion of reality and interchanging it with fiction where she sees fit. Having written the memoir Excavation in 2014 and her self-described “prose poem-ish” memoir Hollywood Notebook in 2015, there hardly seems like a better choice than her to create a “dreamoir”, an elegant pastiche of the reality of a life lived and the unreality created within the subconscious. Bruja, which has just been released on October 31st from Civil Coping Mechanisms, is exactly that, in an ambitious and beautiful form. Ortiz chronicles a period of her life through the uncanniness of her dreams, which blends together fantastical elements and people from her waking life. The result is a strangely relatable magical realism, charting the highs and lows of her day-to-day living through the frustrating ambiguity of dreams. For readers unfamiliar with her work, giving Bruja the label of “dreamoir” might seem like an impediment, as if the intention is to soften the sharp edges of the details of real life. But such an assumption couldn’t be more wrong – the gritty details of dirty apartments, frayed relationships, and sweat-stained clothing litter the pages of Bruja the way that trash dances in the wind down a Skid Row gutter.
With the vivid detail, she describes scenes from her life: heated arguments, emotional ennui, palm trees as a backdrop to a filthy sky. But suddenly animals appear, improbable creatures in impossible locations, and the actions become strange and muddled.
“I let two people, sweet people who I trust on the acquaintance level, pick me up, supporting me under each armpit, and I was carried to safety, past the alligators, and out of the water. Out of danger.”
The dreams split, recombine, and split again from reality and call into question what the reader has experienced, leaving them to interpret the kinds of messages our subconscious beams to us while we sleep. Ortiz perfectly captures the fleeting panic and confusion felt during REM sleep, half-remembered faces in seemingly ridiculous situations, but with our brain applying all of our real-life anxiety and fear.
“A movie played, and I was entranced. The movie was about Jeff….When the credits finished, I looked around and realized again we were in the middle of the ocean.”
Ostensibly placed in the Nineties, it is a landscape dotted with sloppy couples who loudly argue and make up in front of dives, while grunge music and gangster rap blare from passing jeeps. Through pregnancy, betrayed friendships, and other human drama, the narrator voices her frustration like someone trying to wake up from a living nightmare.
“At my mother’s house, monstrous disembodied hands reached through walls. I repeated the 23rd Psalm over and over. Nothing stopped the scaly claws that reached into the bathroom, grabbing at me and the white cat.”
Far from being random and meaningless, several characters often re-appear throughout the dream-timeline of several years. Cats, for instance, often appear in peaceful times and to console during trauma, brushing up against the calves of the narrator in moments of confusion or sorrow. Current and ex-lovers, under a number of monikers, usually appear as centers of emotional conflicts, arbitrary weirdness, or both. They dance in and out of frames to fuck, incite vague arguments, leave seething resentments, occasionally appearing out of character, or in yellow tutus.
“I ended up at a place that is called the co-op but is nothing like the co-op. I ran into Hali. I was glad to see her. We hung out for a while until I sighed and said, It’s been two weeks and I haven’t even told Michael I’m in town yet.”
It is passages like this that Ortiz showcases her ability to imply entire histories of difficult relationships with only the barest of details. Again, the sign of the conjurer, the illusionist at work.
The other recurring character that warrants examination is that of the narrator’s mother, who usually appears in hostile situations. One aspect of her appears as antagonist, dazed and drunk or high, with arguments that flare-up into full-fledged altercations. Even the line quoted before, about the monstrous hands reaching for her, could be found even more telling in that it specifically occurs at the mother’s house. At least two of the passages involve fear of the mother interrupting a sexual relation, which bears its own interpretation of a lingering adolescent fear. Ortiz doesn’t shy away from facing the darker impulses that bubble up from the psyche of the narrator, even when they involve the mother becoming a victim, and escalate into violent murder fantasies:
“My blood was hot with the threat of something. I only knew this: I had to defend. I plunged the largest knife into her chest over and over. She would not die. I felt bone against the knife. Disgust like a smell that wouldn’t leave my nose. I pulled the knife out of her body. Again. Again.”
A sharp counterpoint is the involvement of her father in the passages, who usually appears as benevolent, neutral, or ambiguous to the situation. It makes it difficult to pin down the narrator’s exact relationship to him, but clearly highlights the heavy emotional conflict with the mother as a recurring theme of the time line.
While the dreamlike memories of the narrator take center stage in Bruja, the locations are as much characters here as any of her interchangeable love interests. Some places, like the passages that take place in Olympia, are more about the tunnel-vision setting of the scene, hewn from memories of drama and twenty-four hour trips back and forth from California when things go sour. But it is in Ortiz’s hometown of Los Angeles which gets to share the majority of the spotlight, described in vivid detail throughout the book. She wields the dusky noir of Phillip Marlowe’s LA as deftly as the grime of Bukowski’s, intermingling them as nature intended, knowing that they don’t exist independently but conjoined, symbiotic. More than that, she channels the kind of quiet, surreal, late-afternoon quality that Didion used to describe bougainvillea-covered bungalows or strip malls baked in the sun.
“An unfamiliar older woman I hadn’t seen earlier asked me where I lived. In seedy, dirty Hollywood, and I love it, I said, enjoying every word.”
It is in this fashion that Ortiz explores herself and her world: she extends the Lynchian weirdness of Mullholland Drive to cover all aspects of her own life there – every musky pupuseria, immaculately-trimmed rosebush behind white iron bars, or laundromat where John Varvatos and dollar-store fashions are washed side by side.
To say that Ortiz has created something “magical” may be a little cheesy, but it is still a very apt way to describe this experimental piece. It would be best remembered that the kind of magic she weaves in her writing is not the hokum and snake oil designed solely to entertain, without any real enrichment for the audience. Instead, her way is that of a deeper, therapeutic healing, a way to confront the brutality of real life and the confusing truth of dreams without turning the experience into a sentimental greeting card. She will take you on a journey, reveal herself at her most vulnerable to you, telling us of things that were produced from her own subconscious, that intimate blend of experience and emotion. When she is done, it will be up to you to decide whether the whole thing is just an illusion, or whether she has given you a sneak peek into the uncanny reality that awaits in your own mind.
MATT E. LEWIS is the editor of The Radvocate magazine and co-editor of the horror anthology series States of Terror from Ayahuasca Publishing. His reviews and short fiction have also appeared on Entropy, HorrorTalk.com, Corium Magazine, Black Candies, Connotation Press, Electric Literature, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.