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Heroines

Flannery O’Connor’s dryness rises to eloquence only in the death throe. The Pascalian perfection of her phrasing takes us out of time into the last possible thought before death. There is an intense sense of the immediate scenery in her work, but it doesn’t have to be the South. The place is simply that which backs up this recurrent fault in ourselves, this abysmal disposition to be wrong. Her characters are souls of resentment who must express themselves in these ominous silences and ragged figures. Many Southern writers like to use the idea of original sin. Flannery O’Connor really believed in it. She reminds me of that fiercest of all Catholics, Joseph de Maistre, who said that only the executioner keeps man’s total untrustworthiness from turning society into chaos.

The fascinations of Flannery O’Connor’s work to me are many. She is one of the few Catholic writers of fiction in our day—I omit converts like Evelyn Waugh as being too ideological—who managed to fuse a thorough orthodoxy with the greatest possible independence or sophistication as an artist. Her parish priest in Milledgeville told me that she constantly berated him for admiring conventional fiction. Yet her stories show that the Church—which as a physical character she used rarely in her work, and then in a mood of relaxed satire at her own expense—was so supreme in her mind as to be invisible. The world of “guilt and sorrow,” the light that has been restored but is now unbearable—these ultimates are almost Platonic in their severity. The “real” world is the Bible Belt. Reality is in sin and error, multiplied by the local fanaticism.

No wonder that the situations are so hypnotic, the characters so synonymous, the time of the drama anytime. The place is the bull that kills, the river in which you drown, not a place you remember for itself, like the rectories in J. F. Powers’s stories of American priests. Flannery O’Connor’s severity is an intrinsic view of the world, a formal matter of style. Her stories remain in your mind as inflexible moral equations. The drama is in the short distance between the first intimations of conflict and the catastrophe. They are souls contracted to this world and forced to crash. They rush to their fate in the few pages needed to get them going at all.

I am fascinated by O’Connor’s severity—by its authority, its repetition, its human source. She inherited the dread circulatory disease of lupus, died of it before she was forty, knew she had it from the time she began to write. She was a bluestocking in pseudo-aristocratic surroundings. The Daughters of the Confederacy liked to babify her as one of Milledgeville’s authors, but probably would not have enjoyed her real views about human nature or her mystical, not tribal, sense of her isolation as a Catholic in the Bible Belt. She was a doomed young woman who had nothing to do in her short life but write fiction. There are recurrent examples of the Mother and the precocious, peculiarly neuter figure of the Child—who so early sees all, knows all, and distrusts everyone. The psychological sources of her fiction are so ignored by her admirers that one might think she wrote fiction only to explain the true religion to the heathen. Yet these are less important than the criticism she makes, as a woman even more reduced to inaction than most women, of power.

She links power (as ownership) to violence. People move into violence by a disposition to treat the world as entirely theirs. What she is uncompromising about is the uselessness of mere doing, of the illusion, not just the male vanity, involved in the despotic show of will. Again and again her stories turn on fights over land and over children. People go mad with temper trying to keep up things that exist only in their minds. Often the characteristically resentful character is a woman alone, in middle age, whose dream is not of personal happiness but of the preservation of property as her authority. The illusion takes the form of physical tragedy.

The human quality, at once dull and savage, is like that of the animal world to which O’Connor goes for her imagery. But what characterizes people most is their disproportion to the world. People are nothing but their moral natures, which sit in them like sacks waiting to be emptied into the world of action. The world is necessarily an empty place for her; the external counts only as a trigger. Her world is unhistorical. The only real world is the primal fault. What people do is always grotesque.

To see life with such detachment from the bustling all-consuming world is not to satirize it, but to rephrase it. Only a Southerner could even have dreamed of so much reversal. In our present world of glut, only a woman of a rigor so scriptural as by our present standards to seem mad could have done it. Perhaps Flannery O’Connor owed this “madness” to that femaleness which almost never comes into her fiction for its own sake, or even to that self-protecting sensitiveness which is often a leading character in women’s fiction. Flannery O’Connor found another language for this sensitiveness, a wider set of characters.

The vulnerability of woman is the theme over and again of Shirley Jackson’s stories. Her most famous one, “The Lottery,” is only a more intensely horrible version of the assault, deception, betrayal, which occurs in so many stories where a woman as victim is the main figure and where her defenselessness is the story. As a young woman’s inability to form lasting relations, it is the theme of Jean Stafford’s stories. A lasting ruefulness or mockery about being in love, out of love, past love is the voice that holds Grace Paley’s stories.

These writers and many more are concerned with love rather than sexuality. But in the last few years one of the recurrent themes among younger women writers who have had experiences as rough as a man’s has been the sexuality of life and thought in prison, as in Katherine Dunn, or in the cold-water flats of Bohemia, as in Rosalyn Drexler. And moving up several social levels, we come to the dissatisfied wife.

In the novels of Alison Lurie, the chief figure is always a wife whose husband is an organization man of one kind or another—in a college, an insurance company, a research corporation—and whose rebellion against such ties takes the form of an affair with an artist or composer or refugee psychoanalyst. The resolution is not love for either husband or lover but the recognition of her own true nature, the rejection of the convention forced on her by her husband.

Alison Lurie’s novels are earnest, smooth satires of the New England college, the Los Angeles research and development corporation, the hippie scene, the writers’ colony. They are gotten up like research projects, are full of information, insistent on surface detail in the way of other women writers who have felt like spies when allowed into their husbands’ offices. Their theme is still the woman’s psychological identity, which makes it a passive one when the woman is outside the organization where all the interesting fights are taking place. The men and women in her novels belong by occupation to different species, which makes the exchange of vital information impossible and sex necessary. Indeed, bed is the only place in which her men and woman can find harmony. But the differences between them cannot be resolved so long as men feel all too important to the world and women not at all.

Maybe this will be more and more a significant theme in women’s writing—sexuality as the expression of the necessary misunderstanding between the sexes. If pornography, as Steven Marcus says, is a form of pseudoradicalism, the scalding obscenities in Katherine Dunn’s prison fiction are really radical protests against even the physical difficulties of being a woman in prison cells made for men. But what follows for the bourgeois wife in Alison Lurie’s fiction is the ironic sense of detail with which one makes fun of another woman’s dress after a dinner party—the nagging attention to small details is fundamental in a status society. Call it “the observation post,” for the writer who notices so much is like the heroine who keeps noticing everything for dear life in order to keep her end up.

In Alison Lurie’s first novel, Love and Friendship, the wife complains when her lover goes off to work—“But it’s only ten practically. What’ll I do the rest of the morning?” In Real People the wife of an insurance executive, free to write at an artists’ colony, says bitterly—“Really, I want to write all the stories I’ve thought of and then discarded because they might shock or hurt someone…. Only of course I can’t…. Gerry said I had a patron, as writers did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries…. It’s true. Clark and all the rest of them are my patrons just as much as those English lords were Dryden’s or Pope’s. There is the same avoidance of all topics which might annoy them; the same gross or subtle glorification of their way of life; the same praise of their virtues (reliability, good taste, justice, moderation) and blindness to their faults.

Hopeless. The whole thing is hopeless.” But her observations never flag. The need of occupation is so insistent that everything gets noticed, especially where the scene is entirely new, as in The Nowhere City. There the wife, having just made love with her employer, a psychoanalyst, demurely sits down, still naked, to take dictation, for he still has a few minutes before his next patient.

Brigid Brophy, who is all Freudian, has said contemptuously of the detective story that it cannot be taken seriously because it fails to risk the author’s ego and is therefore mere fantasy. Alison Lurie’s novels certainly do risk the ego. They are so far from being fantasy that they are anxious in their documentation, thick with worldliness and social information. We never get away from the middle-class mind she likes to satirize.

In this context perhaps one should speak only of women writers who remind one of no other women writers. Joyce Carol Oates does not always remind me even of herself, for there is an abundance in her work, an ability to shift her subject from book to book, that shows how much she owes to the extraordinary profusion of life in the United States just now. Miss Oates is not an expectable center of sensibility in the way that even some women geniuses have been. Her essential quality seems to me a peculiar gift for moving with people’s lives as they understand them—a gift for finding out what people think moves them. She is a social novelist of a new kind—concerned not with the emergence of new power relations, as earlier realists were, but with the struggle of people nowadays to express their fate in terms that are cruelly changeable. Reading her, one sees the real tragedy of so many Americans today, unable to find a language for what is happening to them, beyond the point of trying to find a fixed point, to locate the fiction of order.

The drama of society was once seen from the dividing line between the individual and the mass. It has now become the drama within which each person carries a mythology around with him, an idea of causation unrelated to any cause, even to right and wrong. In the older social novels of this century, the novelist was the pathfinder and the characters often blind, helpless victims of their fate like Hurstwood in Sister Carrie—or almost all the characters in Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Joyce Oates’s people are not that far behind her. Their innocent reasoning is so constantly before us that we see their minds in motion, from moment to moment, like faces in films. As John L’Heureux noted in his review of them, the actions of her characters are all on the surface because that is where they lead their lives.

The most interesting thing to me about Joyce Oates’s fiction is this: seeing people in the terms they present to themselves, she is able to present consciousness as a body, as a humorously physical thing. She is empathically related to the flow of their consciousness, but with no more emphasis of sympathy than there is of rejection. I have read, in explanation of her continuous productivity, that she works a book out in her mind and then types it out. This may explain my intuition of her as someone who easily takes in what other people are thinking about—who moves and flows with minds, her own not least, around the accidents, catastrophes, violences that punctuate contemporary America in her work.

She knows much about the natural repetitions that have been the woman novelist’s métier. But she is aware that quantity does change the quality of this cycle. Her subject is the life force not of the individual but in families, groups, even cities. In her latest novel, them, our attention is always directed back to Detroit itself. Detroit is a city she has described as “all melodrama”; there a man can get shot by the brother of the woman he is lying next to in bed, and the body will be disposed of by a friendly policeman. The brother himself pops up later in the sister’s life not as a “murderer,” but as a genially obtuse and merely wistful fellow.

Nothing of this is satirized or moralized as once it would have been. It is what happens every day now, there are too many people for murders to count. There are too many murderers about for the murderer to take murder that seriously. The social organism of mass society is now the point, not the conscience that once made the individual important to himself. This Joyce Carol Oates understands with a facility, or should one say voluminousness, that shows how much she has soaked up, as only a young writer can, of the intricacies that now make up our lives.

This is fiction new not in form or style but in its ability to express the current overpoweringness without rejecting it as meaningless or absurd. In the author’s Preface to them, she calls it a work of history in fictional form—“that is, in personal perspective, which is the only kind of history that exists,” and explains that it is based on the problems and complexities of a student she had at the University of Detroit. She reports that “this student’s various problems and complexities overwhelmed me,” and that it is to

Maureen Wendall’s terrible obsession with her personal history that I owe the voluminous details of this novel…. So much material had the effect of temporarily blocking out my own reality, my personal life, and substituting for it the various nightmare adventures of the Wendalls. Their lives pressed upon mine early, so that I began to dream about them instead of about myself, dreaming and redreaming their lives. Because their world was so remote from me it entered me with tremendous power, and in a sense the novel wrote itself.

The title them Miss Oates says is truly about a specific “them,” based on Maureen’s numerous recollections. But the word “them” also carries for me Miss Oates’s sense of how much our society is class structured, hierarchically divided between those who think of themselves as the Establishment and in their prosperity and importance see those who threaten as “them.” “Them” may also mean all those people in a lower class who disturb us in this specific sense: they press on our lives but we do not want to think about theirs. “Them” is what is too gross to pass through the fine meshes of ordinary literary intelligence. Mere assertive radicalism can also say “them” without taking “them” in. All the more interesting, then, that Miss Oates can get into this work “personal perspective, which is the only kind of history that exists.”

The book opens in August, 1937, with the figure of a girl in love standing before her mirror; it ends after the Detroit riot of 1968 with the two children of that girl, Jules and Maureen Wendall, saying good-by to each other. Miss Oates, who was born in 1938, likes to begin her novels with a scene out of the Thirties. A Garden of Earthly Delights begins with the birth on the highway of a migrant worker’s child after the truck transporting the migrant workers has been in an accident. Miss Oates obviously feels that the Thirties marked the onset of the social crisis that rages even more virulently now under the deceptive form of affluence. She has a sense of the whole period from the Thirties to the Sixties as the key period in the transformation of America into the glut that is her key image.

In Expensive People, a bad book but obviously necessary to her “design,” her horror of the distracting, confusing American overabundance is expressed in the fat narrator’s tales of gluttony and vomiting. Expensive People is entirely unsuited to her gifts, for satire is no more her thing than a short book is; she needs room for the many simultaneous directions in which her characters move. Abundance also becomes her problem as she disapprovingly skips from item to item of the gross national product.

Expensive People is about social fantasies so strong that Miss Oates, disapproving of them, keeps her characters deliberately unreal. They are ridiculous versions of each other, like the different corporations the father is always joining, the new houses they move into as easily as a new car. In them the abundance is a puzzling, intimidating presence, expressing itself in forces forever coming into collision—a lover murdered in bed, Jules setting fire to the barn, an airplane crashing in the field, a decapitation. The real symbol for it is the amount of junk everywhere in and around American houses, cars, garages. These ancient wastes cannot easily be got rid of; they surround the poor even more than the rich with a meaningless weight that is like fallout from another planet.

Yet characteristically, the stuff is there because the people in them are always looking at it. Miss Oates does not describe it from any omniscient and condescending point of view. It is the life that holds us down, that keeps us from changing, the role we Americans get clogged up with:

Their father sat across from them, silent again. He must have been thinking of something else, not hearing them. What did their father think of his job? Of his sick, stinking mother? Of her Social Security pension? Of the car breaking down again? Of the rent on this dump of a house? Of the niggers moving in a few blocks away? Of his wife’s silent padding in bedroom slippers out in the kitchen?… Nor was he thinking of his daughter egging him on to give his son a good slap across the face, which the son deserved; nor was he thinking of the bell-bottomed green lamp on the table beside him, nor of the Detroit News half read on the floor, nor of the radiator with its fake wood top and its row of little glass birds, nor of the silhouette picture on the wall of a gracious lady with a superior nose, one of Lorette’s touches, nor of the grimy, ripped red slipcover on the sofa, nor of Jules’s rotting sneakers and Betty’s rotting teeth….

So many decaying things just now…. Are people equal to lifting themselves above all this junk? Probably not. Miss Oates has established better than any other new novelist the frailty of the person compared with the excessiveness of social power. But it can hardly be said that she speaks for measure, moral economy, an awareness like Flannery O’Connor’s of our limitations. Jules is almost whimsically radicalized in the Detroit riot, then he says good-by to his sister Maureen and goes off. This, like Maureen’s irrational marriage, expresses the now normal comings and goings that are her subject. She is a novelist of her own mind, playing this mind out now well, now badly, but playing it out to the farthest boundary of our social upheaval.

Letters

Women Writers Are People June 3, 1971

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