Niagara, by Mary Woronov. New York: Serpent's Tail. 216 pages. $14. BUY NOW

Snake, by Mary Woronov. New York: Serpent's Tail. 214 pages. $13. BUY NOW


Some forms of literary expression resemble a controlled mimicry of demonic possession. Mary Woronov's writing spits it out like burning embers crackling off a bonfire. The women she writes about are loaded with rage the way pistols are loaded with bullets. And yet, and yet. It is the self-doubting, second-guessing, easily deflated and deflected rage of the Abject Woman, by turns rejecting and embracing her suffocating role. Woronov's women are tapped into forces more powerful and annihilating than the ugly circumstances they're trapped in. They have a pact with the natural world, especially its most virulent elements. They have an understanding with death. This allows them to live. They may triumph by changing form. They even win by destroying themselves. They hold their powers in check until all options are exhausted. They then fling themselves into the whirlwind.

Woronov is well known as an actress in avant-garde films. In her Warhol-era memoir, Swimming Underground, Woronov is not simply, prosaically, the Mary Woronov who burned Chelsea Girls into memory and toured as a whip dancer with the Velvet Underground. Far from trying to out-cool the rest of the Factory gang or enlarge her niche, Woronov focuses on peripheral weirdness beyond the spotlight's glare. She cops to her own naïveté, her decidedly uncool sexual fears and inexperience, and, implicitly, her marginality to the Warhol enterprise. And, I should add, its marginality to her enterprise.

Woronov's two new novels, Snake and Niagara, share some dicey narrative strategies. The most jarringóthe initial withholding of key informationóis one most writers are well-advised to avoid, but Woronov brings it off, because the delayed revelation, in both books, appears when the tracking of a linear plot has become less urgent than the accelerated metamorphosis of the heroine's interiority. In Snake, Woronov's Sandra trips into ever murkier zones of underground Los Angeles. Her quest has no clear object. She seems unable to draw boundaries. She drifts into s/m orgies and massive drug ingestion; at one bacchanal, she witnesses the murder of her (loathed) boyfriend by a drug runner, Luke, who abducts her to a survivalist enclave in Idaho, stopping in Las Vegas for a brief paranoid breakdown.

Paring away the appurtenances and rituals of middle-class "romance" and the illusory safety of the urban hive, Snake reduces Luke and Sandra's liaison to atavistic starkness, illustrating much of what's defective, violent, and futileóand, now and then, tender and empatheticóin the sexual arrangements between men and women. Scattered italicized scenes from a future time suggest that things didn't happen exactly as Sandra recalls them. We're left in doubt about which parts of either narrative can be considered real. This ambiguity gives Snake its dense texture and lingering mystery, an opacity that often splashes this very dark book with a quivering light. The flash-forwards, set in a mental clinic, are the prose equivalents of blurred, oversaturated dream sequences in movies.


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