The article is based in part on one of the Ewing Lectures given by Mr. Kazin at U.C.L.A.
Henry James in an early travel note—“…a certain habitual assurance which is only a grace the more. She combines…all that is possible in the way of modesty with all that is delightful in the way of facility.” He said of her in The Ambassadors—
…by a turn of hand she had somehow made their encounter a relation. And the relation profited by a mass of things that were not strictly in it or of it; by the very air in which they sat, by the high cold delicate room, by the world outside and the little plash in the court, by the First Empire and the relics in the stiff cabinets, by matters as far off as those and by others as near as the unbroken clasp of her hands in her lap and the look her expression had of being most natural when her eyes were most fixed.
George Eliot called her the frail vessel that carries the inestimable treasure of the world’s affection. Flaubert, in a lyric passage that characteristically violates his determination in Madame Bovary to show life as banal, says that
Once, during a thaw, the moisture was oozing out of the trees in the courtyard, the snow melting on the roofs of the outbuildings. She was on the threshold; she went to look for her parasol; she opened it. The parasol, of silk colored like a pigeon’s breast and pierced by the sunlight, lit up with shifting reflections the white skin of her face. She smiled beneath it at the damp heat, and the drops of water could be heard falling, one by one, upon the stretched silk.
Tolstoy described her as a round smiling woman whose very way of walking created a bond between people looking at her. Dostoevsky has her trying to take all the anguish of a murderer’s soul into her own. Dreiser has her say to the man who has been keeping her for years—
He said that if you married me you would only get ten thousand a year. That if you didn’t and still lived with me you would get nothing at all. If you would leave me, or I would leave you, you would get all of a million and a half. Don’t you think you had better leave me now?
Colette has her say—“One night I dreamt that I did not love, and that night, released from all bonds, I lay as though in a kind of soothing death.”
“She” is not merely Anna or Natasha or Isabel or Mme. de Vionnet, but The Heroine—a figure who in so many of the Western novels that we know stands for a unique presence that composes and socializes our existence. She is first of all, of course, The Beloved, so long cherished that she has become the idea of what is cherishable. She is the object of so much striving and longing that she is the greatest possible symbol in Western fiction of our power to love. But more than a character, she is a principle, a way of assuring manners, society, civilization. She stands for the Other even more than she does for a specific another. When Anna Karenina breaks the pact of selflessness that so many heroines exist by, in which they have their being, Tolstoy makes it clear that she has violated a law of life and puts it as the epigraph to his novel: Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, I will repay.
The necessary association we have with the heroine is this: whether she acts well or badly, or for all practical purposes does not act at all, she is being looked at, she is the object of our contemplation. As Henry James said in book after book, she makes a picture. As a picture she becomes the occasion for sensibility and relatedness on everybody’s part, and often makes a genteel frail book carry the treasure of our affection. Especially in American fiction, where there have been so many men without women, so many whales, bears, misogynists, mad sea captains, solitary cowboys, the peculiar need of women as a civilizing agent has turned the heroine into a cultural ideal like the furnishings.
Hemingway’s terse description of the Italian girl in Across the River and Into the Trees—simply the most beautiful girl in the world—is of course not the description of a girl but the name of an idea. The idea is so much of Italy as the romantic past and the reinvigoration of dwindling energies that the girl is really more an aura than a person. She holds things together in Colonel Cantwell’s anguished mind, but doesn’t have to be a person. To be pondered even when she is unreal, to be an object, an acquisition, a bibelot—this is the heroine as most novelists of middle-class training have portrayed her. She is the cementing element in civilization, that which “groups together” by the very nature of the love—and the belief in love—that has been the main business of the heroine.
Now look away from this fixture of our literary culture, from her whose whole reason for existence is to be looked at and “cherished” with that special attentiveness that has been an essential element of fiction. Think of her not as an object, not even as a genius, Colette or Woolf, directly creating herself in the practice of fiction, but as a contemporary at last outside all the categories formed by so much contemplation of her even by women novelists. We approach a figure who for the first time has something to say to us on the order of many other suppressed and neglected and over-symbolized human beings who have emerged in our revolutionary world to say something out of their experience.
We may then value in women writers that originating if not always original element—the necessarily disturbing element—which we are just beginning to notice in the writing of so-called minorities. But to do this we have to think of women creators, not just women characters, which is something that women critics—Kate Millett in Sexual Politics and Mary Ellmann in Thinking About Women—don’t do when they either scorn or mock the way men write about women. Sartre says in Anti-Semite and Jew that the Jew is someone whom the world considers a Jew—this says a lot about the over-nationalized French Jewish bourgeoisie. But if one of the best minds of our time can so misunderstand the self-direction of others, what shall we say of those women intellectuals who describe women only as misjudgments in the minds of men—who never see behind the aggressiveness of Lawrence or Mailer to the obsessive concern with women that Miss Millett’s only guiltless male, Jean Genet, does not feel?
Numbers are important. There are more women novelists today in America than ever before; they are many. Unlike Ellen Glasgow and Edith Wharton at the beginning of the century, they are not solitary freaks in the old genteel merchant class and therefore rebels against it. Unlike the moralistic New England lady novelists of the nineteenth century, they are not necessarily purer than other human beings. In short, they are not inherently exceptional and privileged; they come out of the modern crowd and in many respects they, too, make up a crowd. They are in the flow of modern American life, and as its discontinuities and breakings up appear in their books, we recognize, as we do with minority writers, proof of civilization as a lie, a baleful sense of responsibilities that can no longer be met, an eroticism that is a plea for life—and for more strength and autonomy. There is often a sense of the limitations of their own experience, a sense of being excluded. And along with this there is that sense of the feminine as a physical condition which Proust expressed perfectly when he said that the writer is one who has to use an injured muscle.
Céline, a doctor as well as a writer, said in an interview:
Woman is very troubled, because clearly she has every kind of known weakness. She needs…she wants to stay young. She has her menopause, her periods, the whole genital business, which is very delicate, it makes a martyr out of her, doesn’t it, so this martyr lives anyway, she bleeds, she doesn’t bleed, she goes and gets the doctor, she has operations, she doesn’t have operations, she gets re-operated, then in between she gives birth, she loses her shape, all that’s important. She wants to stay young, keep her figure, well. She doesn’t want to do a thing and she can’t do a thing. She hasn’t any muscle. It’s an immense problem…hardly recognized. It supports the beauty parlors, the quacks, and the druggists. But it doesn’t present an interesting medical situation, woman’s decline. It’s obviously a fading rose, you can’t say it’s a medical problem, or an agricultural problem. In a garden, when you see a rose fade, you accept it. Another one will bloom. Whereas in woman, she doesn’t want to die. That’s the hard part.
The fading rose, the end of youth, the sense of departing powers—these are particularly marked in the bitterness of Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools. This novel was begun many years before it was published as No Safe Harbor and turned into Ship of Fools. The long voyage from Vera Cruz to Hamburg which the young Katherine Anne Porter took in the 1930s she then conceived as the representative voyage into the dissolution of Western society on the eve of World War II. But the many years in which Miss Porter tried to assemble her many scenes into one novel themselves finally became the subject of her novel. The voyage became the writing of the book. And the older Miss Porter got in the writing of it, the more her point of view shifted from the political anger that had influenced her in the Thirties, from her image of society as a leaning tower, to the baleful but perhaps more biological belief that life itself is a foolish enterprise, while time makes monkeys, dwarfs, dupes of us all.
Yet the novel, finally coming out in 1962, succeeded partly because of this physical balefulness and touchiness, the catastrophism of the headlong Sixties in a form easy to read and easy to take. A whole generation of Americans had had their idea of fiction formed by those beautiful stories by Miss Porter which in their laconic irony express perfectly the contrast between the moral character of her heroines and their contracted destiny. In her stories the key figure of the heroine stands for the eager life force, for the artist in life. Woman becomes a work of art in a world stupid with violence. She is a work of art within the larger work of art, by Miss Porter, whose whole aim is to establish the existential reality of a woman’s emotion against the destructiveness of poverty and revolution.
In Ship of Fools the young girl in love is all that is left of this original heroine figure. She has been kept as an index of the time, forever young and perhaps too young ever to be disillusioned. The sensibility has grown sour but conceals this in the episodic nature of the actions. One can say of this book that Miss Porter’s marvelous sense of style in all things froze into stereotypes of the Thirties, mislaid its natural sympathy. Ship of Fools is an extremely ungenerous book. In Miss Porter’s stories one was always aware of an elegant, a proud gift for artistic economy. This was brought to bear against the harshness of landscape, and made exquisite forms of her stories.
So much elegance is a bit archaic; perhaps the sensitive plant is equally so—not least, as I shall try to show, among women writers. On the other hand, literary sensibility in this extreme, pervading form brings us back to the charged-up consciousness of self that has become an insistent fact in our writing. The self has often become the world to express. There is a strange faith in total self-expressiveness. The influence of the feminine can be seen in the convention of loneliness on our stage, as in Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. What is specifically feminine in the American mode is the cry—Who am I? What work is there for me? In what language of my own am I to express my being?
These are also Southern writers. It is not easy, in talking about Southern writers in general, to say how much the solitariness is due to the contrast between the tradition and the reality. There are a lot of fables to get over. The South has produced writers as the Dark Ages produced saints: the gifted few who can read the burning letters for themselves in the book of slavery, hate, and poverty. Nevertheless there is a book, a legend, created by so much pastness. The South Carolina gentlemen who wouldn’t give a cent to keep a local magazine alive, saying that they could get all their reading matter from England, were the same enemy who a century later helped to make Faulkner. But if we ask to what extent Columbus, Georgia, helped to make Carson McCullers and Milledgeville, Georgia, Flannery O’Conner, the answer is less easy to form. Each in her way was doomed from an early age and knew it; each was dependent on her family for the sparse number of characters in her fiction; each was a woman novelist in a South that excited her by its brooding violence, but by its insistent conventions made her feel that she was a freak.
The terror immanent in their work is not commonplace, is not “social,” is not even explained, in McCullers, by the distortion of all love relationships into solitary obsessions, in O’Connor by the lack of any passionately urgent connection between women and men. One woman was excessively fragile, the other mysteriously impersonal, but both rather specialized in a sense of tragedy, of the overpowered (mostly feminine) soul, which makes the strongest character in their work nemesis, some primal wrongness—a force which becomes the presence as it so visibly bends them to their subject.
Carson McCullers was a greater myth-maker than she was a novelist. Her myth was the utter dislocation of love “in our time” and in “our town.” Her extreme sense of human separateness took form in deaf mutes who were also racially alien to the Southern town in which they inexplicably found themselves, Negro doctors maddened by their intellectual isolation, fathers always widowers, and above all a young tomboy who, whether she is too young for sexual love or too odd for it, attributes her own unusedness to everyone else, then projects this “loneliness” onto the struggle against the political terror of the Hitler period and the excessiveness, vacancy, and stillness of summer in the town.
In McCullers what fills the space usually occupied by man-and-woman love is a sensitiveness that charges other people with magical perceptions. She radiated in all her work a demand for love so total that another was to be the perfect giver, and so become magical. The world is so bleak that it is always just about to be transformed. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter astonishingly comes alive still not only as a virtuoso performance dramatically engaging so many hard solitudes, but as a novel of the depressed Thirties haunted by the powerlessness of people and the ferocious powers of governments.
McCullers’s myth-making power was to fit this obsessive loneliness, this sense of total weakness before some real earthly damnation, into the Southern climate, the town in summer, the doldrums of children with nowhere to go. She made many different lacks equal illuminations of the system of life in a Southern town. The bareness, the vacancy, the inertia seem to come out of the weather; the emotions of solitude flourish crazily in the parched streets; even McCullers’s concentration on absolute clarity of style suggests the same still, depressed, vacant atmosphere, produces distinctness as a tragic effect. “In the town there were two deaf-mutes, and they were always together.” Unlike the lonelies defeated by convention in Winesburg, Ohio, McCullers’s girl-children recognize that the town is like themselves. The consistency of her theme absorbed the town into itself, made the immediate landscape hot with silent emotion.
McCullers had the intuition that human beings could be psychic states so absolute and self-contained that they repelled each other sexually. The characters in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter live in an other world so internally consistent as to suggest damnation. They are out of nature. Though she converted this sense of some deep personal unnaturalness into brilliant “atmosphere” (all the more so because her style suggests fright striving for perfect control), the demon of self-damnation—of being utterly locked up, sexually limited—was a subject that fascinated her but which she objectified, as comedy, only once—in The Ballad of the Sad Café.
The Member of the Wedding, her most popular work, turns the Huckleberry Finn of her first novel back into the children’s literature of Tom Sawyer; it devalues her most familiarly tragic feelings about sex into cuteness; now she imitates Carson McCullers with an eye on the audience. But in the Ballad, emotionally the most detached of her fictions, the distrust of sex which runs all through her work expresses itself as a folk tale in which the characters are mostly legends, unnatural and against nature. Everything is seen as literature; there is nothing of that pervasive cry for sympathy which fills up The Heart is a Lonely Hunter like a gas, numbing us. “The town itself is dreary,” she begins, “is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world.”
The now “picturesquely” lonesome state is filled up with a “curious” figure, Miss Amelia Evans, who was once briefly and unsatisfactorily married, and removed from passion has come to exercise a weird power over the town and the chorus of its inhabitants. She is the wonder-working “doctor” to the sick and powerless people; she cures with occult remedies. She also has all the business in town and lives with her files. The other characters are childlike in their helplessness. In her fantastic self-sufficiency, Miss Amelia shows what a woman past love can do with her energy. At the end, her exasperated ex-husband, when released from prison, tries to bring her back to his world of passion. She prefers to be a magician—or author—in perfect control. She fights it out with him in a long drawn-out battle of comic fisticuffs that betrays her desire to lose and her inability to get any profit out of her strength except the solitude which feeds it.
In Flannery O’Connor’s fiction we start beyond the line of sexual love; it is never an issue. The characters are recurrently the Mother, the Child, the Brother, and other angries. There are many angries, especially landowners and their tenant farmers, so that the cardinal elements of humanity—more real to O’Connor than “personalities”—cohere by conflict. What is original and originating about her fiction is her fatalistic trust in her own truth. Hers is not a world of people made lonely by their freakishness, not simply a rural world that turns characters fanatical, as in Hardy or Faulkner, but a Catholic world that subsists on the belief that human beings are absolutely limited.
All people in this uniform condition of silence seem to be the same age. Her stories—more effective than her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away—are of a crazy human disposition to error. Her characters are as amazing in their stoic self-sufficiency as Stephen Crane’s. Their significant fault is that they are too much alike. The recurrent situation is this fatal disposition to turn petty issues into the greatest possible mistakes. An old man who wildly loves his granddaughter, thinks her the only person at all like himself, tries to absorb her will entirely into his own. He kills her in a hysterical protest against an obstinacy just like his own. A young boy away from his sophisticated parents in the company of a madly religious baby sitter gets baptized. “Where he lived everything was a joke. From the preacher’s face, he knew immediately that nothing the preacher said or did was a joke.” He returns home but has to get back to the river. “He intended not to fool with preachers any more but to baptize himself and to keep on going this time until he found the Kingdom of Christ in the river.”
A young liberal on the race question, hopelessly irritated by his mother’s square views, finds after a short bus ride that everything has come to a complete stop. His mother collapses on the street after being pushed by an angry Negro woman to whose child she loftily tried to offer a penny. “The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”
Greenleaf, Mrs. May’s outrageously inefficient tenant farmer, can never keep the bull penned in. She is finally gored to death by a carelessness on Greenleaf’s part that is really total hostility.
She looked back and saw that the bull, his head lowered, was racing toward her. She remained perfectly still, not in fright, but in a freezing unbelief. She stared at the violent black streak bounding toward her as if she had no sense of distance, as if she could not decide at once what his intention was, and the bull had buried his head in her lap, like a wild tormented lover, before her expression had changed. One of his horns sank until it pierced her heart and the other curved around her side and held her in an unbreakable grip. She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person whose sight had been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.
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.
Women Writers Are People June 3, 1971