Joyce Carol Oates Biography
Pseudonym: Rosamond Smith. Nationality: American. Born: Millersport, New York, 1938. Education: Syracuse University, New York, 1956-60, B.A. in English 1960 (Phi Beta Kappa); University of Wisconsin, Madison, M.A. in English 1961; Rice University, Houston, 1961. Career: Instructor, 1961-65, and assistant professor of English, 1965-67, University of Detroit; member of the Department of English, University of Windsor, Ontario, 1967-78. Since 1978 writer-in-residence, and currently Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor, Princeton University, New Jersey. Since 1974 publisher, with Raymond J. Smith, Ontario Review, Windsor, later Princeton. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1966, 1968; Guggenheim fellowship, 1967; O. Henry award, 1967, 1973, and Special Award for Continuing Achievement, 1970, 1986; Rosenthal award, 1968; National Book award, 1970; Rea award, for short story, 1990; Bobst Lifetime Achievement award, 1990; Heideman award, 1990, for oneact play; Walt Whitman award, 1995. Member: American Academy, 1978. Agent: John Hawkins and Associates, 71 West 23rd Street, Suite 1600, New York, New York 10010.
With Shuddering Fall. New York, Vanguard Press, 1964; London, Cape, 1965.
A Garden of Earthly Delights. New York, Vanguard Press, 1967;London, Gollancz, 1970.
Expensive People. New York, Vanguard Press, 1968; London, Gollancz, 1969.
Them. New York, Vanguard Press, 1969; London, Gollancz, 1971.
Wonderland. New York, Vanguard Press, 1971; London, Gollancz, 1972.
Do with Me What You Will. New York, Vanguard Press, 1973;London, Gollancz, 1974.
The Assassins: A Book of Hours. New York, Vanguard Press, 1975.
Childwold. New York, Vanguard Press, 1976; London, Gollancz, 1977.
Son of the Morning. New York, Vanguard Press, 1978; London, Gollancz, 1979.
Cybele. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1979.
Unholy Loves. New York, Vanguard Press, 1979; London, Gollancz, 1980.
Bellefleur. New York, Dutton, 1980; London, Cape, 1981.
Angel of Light. New York, Dutton, and London, Cape, 1981.
A Bloodsmoor Romance. New York, Dutton, 1982; London, Cape, 1983.
Mysteries of Winterthurn. New York, Dutton, and London, Cape, 1984.
Solstice. New York, Dutton, and London, Cape, 1985.
Marya: A Life. New York, Dutton, 1986; London, Cape, 1987.
You Must Remember This. New York, Dutton, 1987; London, Macmillan, 1988.
American Appetites. New York, Dutton, and London, Macmillan, 1989.
Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart. New York, Dutton, 1990; London, Macmillan, 1991.
I Lock My Door upon Myself. New York, Ecco Press, 1990.
The Rise of Life on Earth. New York, New Directions, 1991.
Black Water. New York, Dutton, 1992.
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. New York, Dutton, 1993.
What I Lived For. New York, Dutton, 1994.
Zombie. New York, Dutton, 1995.
First Love: A Gothic Tale, designed and illustrated by Barry Moser. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1996.
Tenderness. Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1996.
We Were the Mulvaneys. New York, Dutton, 1996.
Man Crazy. New York, Dutton, 1997.
My Heart Laid Bare. New York, Dutton, 1998.
Broke Heart Blues. New York, Dutton, 1999.
Blonde. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 2000.
Novels as Rosamond Smith
Lives of the Twins. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987.
Soul-Mate. New York, Dutton, 1989.
Snake Eyes. New York, Dutton, 1992.
You Can't Catch Me. New York, Dutton, 1995.
Starr Bright Will Be With You Soon. New York, Dutton, 1999.
By the North Gate. New York, Vanguard Press, 1963.
Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories. New York, VanguardPress, 1966; London, Gollancz, 1973.
The Wheel of Love and Other Stories. New York, Vanguard Press, 1970; London, Gollancz, 1971.
Cupid and Psyche. New York, Albondocani Press, 1970.
Marriages and Infidelities. New York, Vanguard Press, 1972; London, Gollancz, 1974.
A Posthumous Sketch. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1973.
The Girl. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pomegranate Press, 1974.
Plagiarized Material (as Fernandes/Oates). Los Angeles, BlackSparrow Press, 1974.
The Goddess and Other Women. New York, Vanguard Press, 1974;London, Gollancz, 1975.
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Stories of Young America. Greenwich, Connecticut, Fawcett, 1974.
The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Allusive Comedies. Los Angeles, BlackSparrow Press, 1974; Solihull, Warwickshire, Aquila, 1975.
The Seduction and Other Stories. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1975.
The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese (asFernandes/Oates). New York, Vanguard Press, 1975; London, Gollancz, 1976.
The Triumph of the Spider Monkey. Santa Barbara, California, BlackSparrow Press, 1976.
The Blessing. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1976.
Crossing the Border. New York, Vanguard Press, 1976; London, Gollancz, 1978.
Daisy. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1977.
Night-Side. New York, Vanguard Press, 1977; London, Gollancz, 1979.
A Sentimental Education. Los Angeles, Sylvester and Orphanos, 1978.
The Step-Father. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1978.
All the Good People I've Left Behind. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1979.
The Lamb of Abyssalia. Cambridge, Massachusetts, PomegranatePress, 1979.
A Middle-Class Education. New York, Albondocani Press, 1980.
A Sentimental Education (collection). New York, Dutton, 1980;London, Cape, 1981.
Funland. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1983.
Last Days. New York, Dutton, 1984; London, Cape, 1985.
Wild Saturday and Other Stories. London, Dent, 1984.
Wild Nights. Athens, Ohio, Croissant, 1985.
Raven's Wing. New York, Dutton, 1986; London, Cape, 1987.
The Assignation. New York, Ecco Press, 1988.
Heat and Other Stories. New York, Dutton, 1991.
Where Is Here? Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco, 1992.
Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque. New York, Dutton, 1994.
Will You Always Love Me? and Other Stories. New York, Dutton, 1996.
The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque. New York, Dutton, 1998.
The Sweet Enemy (produced New York, 1965).
Sunday Dinner (produced New York, 1970).
Ontological Proof of My Existence, music by George Prideaux (produced New York, 1972). Included in Three Plays, 1980.
Miracle Play (produced New York, 1973). Los Angeles, BlackSparrow Press, 1974.
Daisy (produced New York, 1980).
Three Plays (includes Ontological Proof of My Existence, Miracle Play, The Triumph of the Spider Monkey). Windsor, Ontario Review Press, 1980.
The Triumph of the Spider Monkey, from her own story (produced LosAngeles, 1985). Included in Three Plays, 1980.
Presque Isle, music by Paul Shapiro (produced New York, 1982).
Lechery, in Faustus in Hell (produced Princeton, New Jersey, 1985).
In Darkest America (Tone Clusters and The Eclipse) (producedLouisville, Kentucky, 1990; The Eclipse produced New York, 1990).
American Holiday (produced Los Angeles, 1990).
I Stand Before You Naked (produced New York, 1991).
How Do You Like Your Meat? (produced New Haven, Connecticut, 1991).
Twelve Plays. New York, Dutton, 1991.
Black (produced Williamstown, 1992).
The Secret Mirror (produced Philadelphia, 1992).
The Perfectionist (produced Princeton, New Jersey, 1993). In The Perfectionist and Other Plays, 1995.
The Truth-Teller (produced New York, 1995).
Here She Is! (produced Philadelphia, 1995).
The Perfectionist and Other Plays. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco, 1995.
New Plays. Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1998.
Women in Love and Other Poems. New York, Albondocani Press, 1968.
Anonymous Sins and Other Poems. Baton Rouge, Louisiana StateUniversity Press, 1969.
Love and Its Derangements. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State UniversityPress, 1970.
Woman Is the Death of the Soul. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1970.
In Case of Accidental Death. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pomegranate Press, 1972.
Wooded Forms. New York, Albondocani Press, 1972.
Angel Fire. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1973.
Dreaming America and Other Poems. New York, Aloe Editions, 1973.
The Fabulous Beasts. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1975.
Public Outcry. Pittsburgh, Slow Loris Press, 1976.
Season of Peril. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1977.
Abandoned Airfield 1977. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1977.
Snowfall. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1978.
Women Whose Lives Are Food, Men Whose Lives Are Money. BatonRouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1978.
The Stone Orchard. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1980.
Celestial Timepiece. Dallas, Pressworks, 1980.
Nightless Nights: Nine Poems. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1981.
Invisible Woman: New and Selected Poems 1970-1982. Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1982.
Luxury of Sin. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1984.
The Time Traveller: Poems 1983-1989. New York, Dutton, 1989.
The Edge of Impossibility: Tragic Forms in Literature. New York, Vanguard Press, 1972; London, Gollancz, 1976.
The Hostile Sun: The Poetry of D.H. Lawrence. Los Angeles, BlackSparrow Press, 1973; Solihull, Warwickshire, Aquila, 1975.
New Heaven, New Earth: The Visionary Experience in Literature. New York, Vanguard Press, 1974; London, Gollancz, 1976.
The Stone Orchard. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1980.
Contraries: Essays. New York, Oxford University Press, 1981.
The Profane Art: Essays and Reviews. New York, Dutton, 1983.
Funland. Concord, New Hampshire, Ewert, 1983.
On Boxing, photographs by John Ranard. New York, Doubleday, andLondon, Bloomsbury, 1987; expanded edition, Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco, 1994.
(Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities. New York, Dutton, 1988.
Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates, edited by Lee Milazzo. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
George Bellows: American Artist. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1995.
Come Meet Muffin (for children), illustrated by Mark Graham. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1998.
Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going: Essays, Reviews, and Prose. New York, Plume, 1999.
Editor, Scenes from American Life: Contemporary Short Fiction. New York, Vanguard Press, 1973.
Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, The Best American Short Stories 1979. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
Editor, Night Walks: A Bedside Companion. Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1982.
Editor First Person Singular: Writers on Their Craft. Princeton, NewJersey, Ontario Review Press, 1983.
Editor, with Boyd Litzinger, Story: Fictions Past and Present. Lexington, Massachusetts, Heath, 1985.
Editor, with Daniel Halpern, Reading the Fights (on boxing). NewYork, Holt, 1988.
Editor, The Essential Dickinson. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1996.
Editor, American Gothic Tales. New York, Plume, 1996.
Editor, Tales of H.P. Lovecraft: Major Works. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1997.
Editor, with R.V. Cassill, The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. New York, Norton, 1998.
Editor, Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers. New York, Norton, 1998.
Joyce Carol Oates: An Annotated Bibliography by Francine Lercangée, New York, Garland, 1986.
Syracuse University, New York.
The Tragic Vision of Joyce Carol Oates by Mary Kathryn Grant, Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 1978; Joyce Carol Oates by Joanne V. Creighton, Boston, Twayne, 1979; Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates edited by Linda W. Wagner, Boston, Hall, 1979; Dreaming America: Obsession and Transcendence in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates by G.F. Waller, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1979; Joyce Carol Oates by Ellen G. Friedman, New York, Ungar, 1980; Joyce Carol Oates's Short Stories: Between Tradition and Innovation by Katherine Bastian, Bern, Switzerland, Lang, 1983; Isolation and Contact: A Study of Character Relationships in Joyce Carol Oates's Short Stories 1963-1980 by Torborg Norman, Gothenburg, Studies in English, 1984; The Image of the Intellectual in the Short Stories of Joyce Carol Oates by Hermann Severin, New York, Lang, 1986; Joyce Carol Oates: Artist in Residence by Eileen Teper Bender, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1987; Understanding Joyce Carol Oates by Greg Johnson, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1987; Joyce Carol Oates: Novels of the Middle Years by Joanne V. Creighton, New York, Twayne, 1992; Joyce Carol Oates: A Study of the Short Fiction by Greg Johnson, New York, Twayne Publishers and Toronto, Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1994; Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates by Brenda Daly, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1996; Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates by Greg Johnson, New York, Dutton, 1998; Critical Reception of the Short Fiction by Joyce Carol Oates and Gabriele Wohmann by Sigrid Mayer and Martha Hanscom, Columbia, South Carolina, Camden House, 1998.
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Joyce Carol Oates is among the most able American novelists writing today and belongs in a long tradition of serious literary novelists who also had broad popular appeal, including her American predecessors, Edith Wharton and Henry James, as well as their British counterparts, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and earlier, Fanny Burney. Some of her detractors have been suspicious of a writer whose productivity is nothing short of staggering, and they have tended to underestimate her talent, complaining of the looseness of her writing, the sensationalistic nature of many of her stories, and her lurid imagination.
Her recent books invite some comparisons with the writing of John Updike and Saul Bellow. She and Updike share an uncanny knack for understanding middle America, suburbia, and the temper of the times. Updike, too, shares Oates's delight in witches, although the two treat their subjects quite differently. Bellow and Oates have less in common, although both see themselves as novelists of ideas and both have written in a comedic and parodic style about the academy. Bellow is a wittier writer and the more elegant stylist. Both authors have very recently produced imaginative accounts of public figures, prompting critics to ponder the motives behind their choice of subject and to raise interesting questions about the relationship between a writer and real life and how those relationships translate themselves in fiction.
Bellow's novel, Ravelstein, and Oates's novel, Blonde, take as their subject Allan Bloom and Norma Jean Baker—"Marilyn Monroe," respectively. Both authors made their careers at universities and both fill their books with references and allusions to the world of ideas and literature. Bloom, the real man behind the fictive Ravelstein, was a professor in the Committee of Social Thought at the University of Chicago and a close friend of the author. He was heralded as the darling of the right wing conservatives when his book, The Closing of the American Mind, was at the height of its popularity. Blonde 's subject is the life of the very troubled woman-made-star and sex goddess, whose screen image circulated globally, receiving more adulation and attention than most any other star in this century. Oates is the latest of a number of famous artists and writers who have chosen to write about or paint Monroe, including Gloria Steinem, Norman Mailer, and Ed Paschke.
Oates's decision to write about Norma Jean Baker is not unexpected. It allows her to immerse herself in the distorted psychosexuality of the woman and write about the sex act with an abandon and graphic literalness that has increasingly become part of her style in recent writings. In Zombie she takes on the voice of a sexual-psychopathic serial killer, Quentin P. With chilling effect, she enters the mind of the killer, utterly devoid of conscience, assuming his stream-of-consciousness. She showed her interest in public figures earlier in Black Water where she treated the drowning at Chippaquiddick. Her taste for stories that make screaming headlines and haunt the public imagination for many years to come is one of her trademarks.
The process of myth making that transforms a life into ballads, legends, and stories has long fascinated her. She is intrigued by cult figures and the way they reflect the subterranean needs of their age. Her propensity to write about seemingly vacuous women, usually illegitimate, self-destructive, spoiled, beautiful, and empty, although often in fact, highly intelligent, has been in evidence since her very earliest novels.
Oates may have taken Marilyn for her subject in order to guarantee herself book sales, but a more important motive was probably her desire to write about a woman whose image as much as any other female star in American film—including such greats as Greta Garbo or Ingrid Bergmann—has captured the American psyche and achieved iconic proportions that ensure her a place in twentieth-century cultural history. The subject allows Oates to explore the ways in which a culture invents such icons. She tries empathetically to capture the psyche of the actual woman, whose life has been appropriated by the media and society, exposing what it must have felt like to inhabit her body and mind. This act of recuperation is precisely the kind of challenge that Oates the thinker has always found attractive.
Blonde has sparked a range of responses and in curious ways contributed to the view of Oates as a glib, often sloppy, writer, with too predictable, albeit grotesque and sometimes sleazy, an imagination. The book does have its fair share of anachronisms, inconsistencies, and erratic scholarship. Nonetheless, it brilliantly expresses the inner and outer life of this film goddess/whore and captures the world of Hollywood, California and New York and its school of Method Acting replete with all their personalities. The book's narrative structure is complex. Oates assumes many voices and perspectives in order to show, as Jean-Paul Sartre is quoted to say on the opening pages, how "Genius is not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances."
Opening with the section "Special Delivery" in which a package is handed to Marilyn by Death in an early evening in Brentwood, California, on August 3, 1962, the novel chronicles Baker's life as a child, a girl, a woman, "Marilyn," and her afterlife years. It concludes with her actual death, deciding to draw on one of the controversial accounts of Marilyn's last hours. She has Marilyn die at the hands of the Sharpshooter, an employee of the Agency, who inserts a lethal dose of Nembutal directly into her heart. Oates describes her book as fictive, in which she creates the radically distilled "life" of Monroe, collapsing twelve sets of foster parents into one frightening pair, and making other alterations, including her version of Monroe's death, to fit her needs as a novelist. As is her practice, she draws heavily on biographical sources on Marilyn and on the film-industry to give her book a richness of specificity that is characteristic of her best writing. She does not use original material or interviews since a determination of the facts of Marilyn's life is not of paramount importance. She does a superb job of studying film footage, photographs, and the famous nude poster and finding the exact words to call up the image and to describe Monroe's excitement and genius when in front of the camera.
She fully enters into her subject, penning some of Marilyn's poems and constructing the dialogues between Marilyn and her three husbands that have a ring of authenticity—the reader almost believes that these must really have been her words, the way she would talk with the Ex-Athlete, the Playwright, and the President, the names Oates assigns to Marilyn's two husbands, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, and her lover, John F. Kennedy. Two other screen presences, The Fair Prince and the Dark Prince, frame Oates's account of Norma Jean's life and explain, mythopoetically, the source of the child's love affair with her Magic Image in the mirror. The little girl sits in movie houses, watching these two enchanted creatures, awaiting their final perfect kiss, fearing there will be no closure, and wanting to be in life what she has seen in the movies, an image that has no other meaning beyond itself. Ultimately, it is Cass Chaplin whose final package to her practices a joke so cruel that only Nembutal can ease her. He is the doomed son of the silent movie star, Charlie Chaplin. It is Charlie Chaplin's dark eyes gazing out of a poster from City-Lights that lit up Norma Jean's world when she lived in squalor as a child with her mentally unstable, finally unfit, mother. This alcoholic, drug-besotted man with movie-star good looks is at once her kindred spirit in the novel and her cruel betrayer.
Bellow states that he wrote Ravelstein to honor a promise to his friend and colleague to write about him and give him immortality. The book also allowed him to more nakedly treat himself in fiction, under the guise of Chick, than he had done before, and it offered him a chance of write of his own near-death experience and his gratitude and love for his young wife. Most important, it expresses his love for not just the character in the book, but for the man whose life became his subject. In this sense, this last book of Bellow's is more revealing than any other. In Oates's case, the motive for the book must lie in her preoccupation with myths and how they express themselves in today's American culture and her desire to redeem Monroe from the unnatural, almost caricatured woman that circulates in late twentieth-century discourse. At a deeper level, her need to get way inside of Norma Jean Baker and her inventions, suggests that Oates's own writings, so full of inventions and fabulations, answer some urgent need to find words that can give expression to some fundamental truths—often unnamable or unspeakable until a writer finds words for them—about lived experience.
Any assessment of Oates's accomplishments should admit that the sheer quantity and range of her writing is impressive. In addition to her numerous novels since her first, With Shuddering Fall, she has written many volumes of short stories, poems, plays, and criticism. She usually writes about extraordinary people whose fanatical desire to compel life to conform to their vision finally becomes all consuming and self-destructive. Most frequently, these figures are imaginary. In Blonde, Oates totally invests herself in creating the inner life of the quintessential doomed woman, Marilyn Monroe. In all of these books, Oates relentlessly charts the disintegration of the self.
Son of the Morning offers perhaps her most shocking and gripping exploration of this theme. A Pentecostal preacher, Nathanael Vickery, witnesses seven visitations from the Lord, each more terrifying than the last. Nathanael is left with the knowledge that God has withdrawn himself and left him to sink back into oblivion and write the book of himself. In other novels, Oates moves beyond a vision in which man can free himself only through an explosion of violence. These novels work toward quieter endings in which her central protagonists survive and transcend their nightmarish experiences to construct more stable lives, integrating themselves into the social fabric.
In one of her recent novels, Broke Heart Blues, she tells the story of John Reddy Heart, an adolescent 1960s hero—a sort of combination of Jimmy Dean, Marlon Brando, and Elvis Presley—who is accused of murdering his mother's lover in her bed when he is sixteen years old. The novel covers more than thirty years and is written largely from the point of view of John Reddy Heart's idols. It includes a section where Heart finally unfolds his story, totally reframing the incidents of the night in question. He depicts a very different, and wholly innocent, man complete with his sense of self-sacrifice which has molded his life to the needs of the moment, where he has simply "done what he had to do" and allowed others, also, to "do what they have to do." This novel has all the characteristics of Oates's writing at its best. Her sense of the period is uncanny and done with meticulous detail and a feel for the times, the dress codes, the popular music, the favorite films, and so on. She has an absolute flair for dialogue and a genius for types. Her characters come from an affluent upper-state New York suburb. Oates shows them caught up in each fad of their time. Each represents a type but is delineated with breathtaking originality. There are the boy-crazed screaming teenage girls, the elite, snobby group of popular boys and girls who had started school together in kindergarten, the acne-scarred, pimple-faced adolescents, the plain, pudgy-faced sad girl, the rowdies and the straights, and the fat girl nobody liked who was notorious for keeping her Death Chronicles. You cannot read about these characters without recalling your own teenage years and all the subsequent reunions. The novel's ending is a tour-de-force as Oates chronicles the final thirtieth reunion and all the misadventures as well as successes that attend it. It weirdly echoes the language and structure of James Joyce and Anthony Burgess in a way the reader will relish.
Oates also exploits the macabre. In Black Water, she delves into the consciousness and the experience of drowning in her imaginative recreation of the Teddy Kennedy/Mary Jo Kopechne incident at Chippaquiddick. In Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, Maddy-Monkey, the official chronicler of the gang, shares the secrets and rites of the gang. She dwells on the fateful year of 1956 when their crimes led to the notorious kidnapping and ransoming of Whitney Kellogg, Jr. Their leader, Legs Sadovsky, mysteriously disappeared never to be seen again, or at least the chronicler of the confessions is uncertain that a recent sighting has any validity. An even more disturbing portrait of a deranged mind appears in Zombie, reminiscent of Paul Theroux's shocking novel, Chicago Loop, published five years earlier and similarly offering the stream-of-consciousness of a perverted mind.
Oates's appetite as a writer is as voracious as the will of her most willful protagonists. She consumes and disgorges experience, her own and that of others. She has recast the visions and stories of numerous writers, exhibiting her debt to Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, Mann, and Balzac while remaining firmly planted in the American realistic and naturalistic narrative traditions. She has imaginatively entered in the lives of Pentecostal preachers, children of the slums, a nineteenth-century detective, professors in academia, schoolteachers, artists, a drowned woman, and countless others.
Although there are Continental influences, her writing is thoroughly American, after the manner of Fitzgerald and Faulkner, Dreiser, Farrell, and Mailer. Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County is her fictitious Eden County, set near Millersport, New York, where she lived as a child. Farrell's Chicago is her Detroit: Studs Lonigan is made over into Jules and Maureen Wendall in Them. Fitzgerald's Gatsby is her Jules, a man in love with the aloofness money brings, crazily hungry for Nadine, Daisy's counterpart in Them. Oates is fascinated with property and the violence it engenders in those obsessed with it. She struggles to write an American epic, built around a dynastic family that will express the American experience.
Bellefleur is her ambitious attempt at such an epic, an attempt that eluded the grasp of writers whose talents dwarf her—Melville and Twain, Faulkner and Bellow. A Bloodsmoor Romance and Mysteries of Winterthurn continue Oates's treatment of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century America. Each imitates brilliantly the genre of the Gothic saga, the romance, and the detective novel respectively.
Oates is a storyteller of considerable gifts. She is also a writer's writer. In her novels of social and psychological realism, she reveals little interest in postmodern experimental modes, avoiding the dexterous verbal play and intricate parodic structures developed by John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, or Donald Barthelme. John Updike and Bellow are writers more to her tastes. She has also embarked on literary projects in which fabulation, invention, and intertextuality figure prominently. In these, her flair for irony and her playful, sometimes nasty, reimaginings of popular nineteenth-century genres are evident, but the novels remain ultimately stable in their meaning. They are not true works of deconstruction or postmodernity. She often writes with a social purpose out of concerns that are moral, psychological, and political. There are times, however, when the violence in her novels seems gratuitous and the work itself seems, finally, immoral. Expensive People is such a book.
Childwold and Cybele mark Oates's shift away from naturalism, with The Assassins figuring as a transitional, experimental work. The assassin who stalks Andrew Petrie, the one-time senator, is Andrew. The murderer is monistic thinking, the willful fixation upon one idea, be it religious, philosophical, or literary. It severs the individual from the community of man, isolating and destroying him. The monism encases its believer in isolation as total as that which Hugh experiences as a paralytic, breathing with the aid of an iron lung, without his sight. Bellefleur and Unholy Loves—few books could be less alike—testify to Oates's skill and range.
Bellefleur is a vast, sprawling book that weirdly welds the natural and the supernatural together to create a psychologically and imaginatively plausible history of six generations of the Bellefleur family from 1744 to the present. The book stretches the genre of American Gothic, including history in its domain. Unholy Loves is a tightly constructed, unified book: five chapters, five parties, it lays bare the soul of Brigit Stott, a recent divorcée, member of the English department, and a writer in a university modeled after Syracuse University, where Oates earned her undergraduate degree. Unholy Loves and American Appetites belong with Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head. Unholy Loves contains scenes of erupting violence, but the general atmosphere is one of forced conviviality. Oates knows intimately the scandals of the university, the ambitions, the bitchiness, pomposity, petty jealousy, and colossal loneliness that are endemic to modern university life.
Marya: A Life and Solstice each extend Oates's treatment of teachers and academics. The first is in some ways an autobiographical book, treating in eleven disconnected episodes the life of a woman from her squalid origins to her rapid success as a writer. Solstice is an absorbing study of an obsessive relationship between Monica Jensen, a thirtyish divorcée and teacher in a private school in the wilds of Pennsylvania, and a much older, widowed, eccentric artist, Sheila Trask, whose self-dramatization and self-destructiveness ensnare Monica, binding her in a relationship as passionate and all-consuming as any Oates had earlier delineated.
Cybele and Childwold move away from the quasi-naturalistic fiction that dominated Oates's early writing. Childwold is lyrical. It is set in Eden County. Nature is mysterious and erotic and, in a Faulknerian manner, Oates celebrates the survivors. Cybele is more disturbing. Edwin Locke is the luckless victim of Cybele, the great goddess of nature who asks for nothing less than the life of this man who falls under her enchantment during his midlife crisis. She is a demanding goddess; he pays her the ultimate sacrifice when he allows himself to be consumed by his own passions. He confuses eros with love and falls. The action of Cybele is similar to that of Do With Me What You Will. However, love redeems Elena in the latter novel, whereas Edwin never experiences it. The narrative angle of Cybele shifts, reflecting Oates's desire to move more overtly into the realm of the demonic and the unconscious which dominate her novels Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance, and Mysteries of Winterthurn.
Much has been written about Oates's obsession with violence. Rape, incest, patricide, infanticide, self-mutilation, animal mutilation, suicide, wife beating, child abuse, murder, and drowning abound in her fiction. Sometimes the violence is gratuitous—too often it is sensational—but more often than one wants to admit, it demands to be confronted. Conceptions are violent in her fiction, blighting the children born of them. In Them, Jules is conceived in a coupling that results in the murder of his natural father by his mother's brother, leaving his mother bathed in the blood of her dead lover and hostage to the policemen whose help she seeks. The violence that marked his conception doggedly pursues him. Hopelessly drawn to Nadine, he finds himself the target of her gun after a night of lovemaking in which he could not satisfy her. Later, caught up in the chaos of the Detroit fires, he kills a man and paradoxically recovers himself.
Nathanael Vickery, the Pentecostal preacher of Son of the Morning, is a child born of his mother's rape. Lacking a father, he grows up believing he is God's child and that his will is not his own. The initiation that rids him of this delusion, leaving him a nullity, is a terrifying one. When God withdraws from this man he has inhabited for 35 years, Nathanael is left without words or gestures. He crawls off the platform where he had been preaching before thousands, numbering himself among the damned. Stephen, in The Assassins, and Jebediah, in Bellefleur, are similarly abandoned by the god of their willful self-creation. In Bellefleur Oates includes every one of the violent acts mentioned above and more. Germaine is one of the Bellefleurs who survives. Her father, Gideon, wrecks his vengeance on his past and his wife when he flies his plane into the Bellefleur Mansion, destroying it, himself, his wife, and her numerous followers. The special child he saves is the child whose chilling birth opens the book. She is born a biological freak, with the genitalia of a male twin protruding from her abdomen to be sliced off by her quick-thinking mother. Judith Rossner's Attachments, seems to have had an unfortunate influence on Oates's already sufficiently grotesque imagination.
A Bloodsmoor Romance is a nineteenth-century romance, narrated by a young virgin and chronicling the "ignominious" history of the five marriageable daughters of the Zinn family settled in the Bloodsmoor valley of Pennsylvania. More overtly feminist than Oates's earlier writings, this book has been described as the other side of Little Women, the tale it did not dare to tell. The style is turgid; the tale replete with the trademarks of historical romance-fainting virgins, a sudden abduction, ghosts, and the unspeakable evils of drink and dissipation. An odd mingling of myth and history, A Bloodsmoor Romance and its successor, Mysteries of Winterthurn, indulge Oates's excursions into Victoriana and humor.
Mysteries of Winterthurn disguises itself as a detective story told by an orotund, male connoisseur of criminal investigations while it probes the mystery of personality and religion. The detective-hero, Xavier Kilgarvan, confronts three bizarre cases, each separated by twelve years. The first begins when he is but a twelve-year-old boy, besmitten with his wayward cousin and caught up in a bizarre series of bedchamber murders, the first being the vampirish murder of a child. The second mystery, "Devil's Half-Acre; or the Mystery of the 'Cruel Suitor,"' occurs twelve years later and involves a succession of butchered factory girls. The third case, "The Blood-Stained Bridal Groom," involves an outbreak of frenzy in a disbeliever resulting in the death of a clergyman, his mother, and a female parishioner. The detective finally surrenders to brain fever and forgetfulness rather than know what Perdita, his wayward cousin, has done. The story dissolves into one of radical ambiguity in which guilt and innocence cannot be distinguished. All three of the sagas of nineteenth-century America are full of ghastly circumstances, authorial asides, quaint, baroque descriptions, extravagances, and morbid preoccupations. All three are pointedly feminist. All are stylistically indulgent.
After plumbing the depths of chaotic nightmares and the annihilation of the self, Oates, in the mid-1980s began to reconfigure her tragic vision, concentrating more on a character's capacity to survive and transcend. She revisits the naturalistic landscape of her earlier fiction but with some noteworthy differences. She continues to minutely depict American cultural history, returning to the era of the Depression in flashbacks in You Must Remember This and fleshing out her description of America between 1944 and 1956, complete with bomb shelters and civil defense drills, the adulation of Eisenhower, the Army-McCarthy hearings, and the electrocution of the Rosenbergs. In I Lock the Door Upon Myself, she imaginatively reenters a turn-of-the-century rural community, recounting the narrative of a willful white woman's defiant flight with a black itinerant water diviner. In American Appetites, the main action occurs in 1986. It is set in Hazelton-on-Hudson, New York, at the prestigious Institute for Independent Research in the Social Sciences, yet the book also captures the flavor of the 1980s. Returning to the vein of Unholy Loves, Oates satirizes the petty rivalries and pretensions of illustrious members of the American research university while she unfolds a terrifying story of an eruption of domestic violence that results in the death of the wife and criminal charges against her husband, the protagonist, Ian McCullough. Foxfire is set in upstate New York and the episodes recalled occur in the mid-1950s. Oates explores the sensibility and dreams of the young, impressionable, wild, bad adolescent girl. The story of the exploits of the girl gang members starts innocently enough but draws them into a world of thievery and prostitution and threatens to destroy them all when they act on their kidnapping plot.
The difference in the evolving sensibility of Oates lies in her handling of the aftermath of the violence unleashed in her novels. In Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, You Must Remember This, and Foxfire, the protagonists survive the brutal events that threaten to engulf them. In the first, Iris Courtney is both complicit in a black man's murder of an adolescent thug and a victim of her father's neglect and her mother's whorish, alcoholic life, and yet she endures to move beyond these events in her past. In the second, Enid, suicidal at the opening of the novel and suffering from anorexia nervosa, survives the protracted incestuous relationship with her uncle to marry and come to a forgiveness of those who hurt her. American Appetites, in some respects one of the most shocking novels she has written, also emerges from its dark night of the soul, portraying an altered man, but one capable of a complex moral understanding of the events that led to his accidental killing of his wife in the midst of a marital quarrel. Madeleine Faith Wirst is expelled from the Foxfire gang, miraculously paving the way for her to return to society, have a short marriage followed by divorce, get a university degree, and pursue a career as an astronomer's assistant, probing negative light in films of identical parts of the sky.
It is difficult to know what finally to say about Oates's reliance on violence. It is integral to her vision—and surely, it is all-too-much a part of American life, throughout this century. It rivets her action and often constellates her characters. It does not go away. Often it seems to mar her characterization, leaving motives ill defined and murky. The tensions unleashed by the violence threaten the boundaries of her art. But the violence is often believable and it does not let us forget. It stuns us, makes us wonder how the imagination that so clear-sightedly depicts it can remain so remarkable levelheaded and intact. In a book like Blonde the violence is so convincingly portrayed and so much a part of what we know of Norma Jean/"Marilyn" that it is hard to dismiss its explanatory power. Critics continue to say that Oates is obsessively consumed with violence, reveling in its brutishness, caught in its senseless repetitions, salaciously reveling in its psycho-sexual dimensions, thrilled, somehow, by the recurring theme of domination and submission, discipline and punishment.
Oates's fascination with the sport of boxing has fueled the critical response to her writing that is so often colored by references to her gender and the body image of the woman herself. Black Water provides her with an occasion to reflect on the death penalty and the five ways in which it can be carried out in America. It is too easy and misguided to complain that she writes too much and too easily and that she exploits violence in her novels. She is a supreme teller of tales and her imagination never fails to startle the reader. The scene of domestic violence in American Appetites, the circumstances of the drowning in Black Water, the sex orgies and the nude photographing of Marilyn in Blonde are vivid, unforgettable, and original. The first two novels are importantly about crime and punishment, remorse and forgiveness. The latter scathingly indicts the industry, people, and society that created the circumstances in which a "Marilyn" can be made. Oates's excursions into a world of violence and hyperreality touch something little understood. Now that she is tunneling behind the violence, letting the reader see its mainsprings more fully, she makes clearer the end that justifies the experience. Oates is a writer who embarks on ambitious projects; her imagination is protean; her energies and curiosity seemingly boundless; and throughout all her writing, the reader detects her sharp intelligence, spirit of inquiry, and her zeal to tell a story.
Carol Simpson Stern
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