A Bloodsmoor Romance
Interviewers like to ask Joyce Carol Oates, presumably in the accent of awe, how she finds time to write all those books: fourteen novels, counting A Bloodsmoor Romance, eleven collections of short stories, six books of poetry, counting Invisible Woman: New and Selected Poems 1970-1982, two plays, and three books of criticism. The question isn’t as innocent as it sounds. With a slight change of tone, it could come out differently, as if it asked: “Don’t you think your reputation would be even higher than it is if you took more time, let the typescripts stay on your desk for a year or two before sending them to the publisher? Think of E.M. Forster, a classic novelist on the strength of one book, eked out by a few short volumes and many years of silence.” Oates has answered the question, in its implied second form, by saying: “I write with the enormous hope of altering the world.” You might as well take as many shots at that target as you think you need, especially if proof that you’ve altered the world doesn’t come merely because you send for it. Oates might also deal with Forster by saying: think of Balzac, think of James.
The question, in any form, is a little vulgar, but it could be redeemed. There is a genuine question to be asked about a novelist who is, as Oates is, serious, prolific, and popular. Is her seriousness limited, carefully restrained to make it compatible with the demands of popularity? Is she popular because she is prolific, a success because she is already a success, the habit well formed? Or because it is attractive to see a writer as productive in her craft as, say, a successful businessman is in his? Oates has made much of a line in King Lear where the King says, “They told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie,” and she has converted it into the motto that “the artist must act upon the frail conviction that he is everything, else he will prove nothing.” Believing that nothing will come of nothing, she speaks again and again.
Oates’s fiction is hard to describe, mainly because it is equivocal in its relation to the genres it ostensibly fulfills. Bellefleur (1980) comes as close as any other book to representing the quality of her work. It is a big book, a saga about an American family, already cursed and living out its doom. The generations are elaborately described, the narrative style is even more full-blooded than the blood it spills. The several stories are grandly sustained. But they are all told as if they had already been narrated elsewhere and have only to be alluded to. The strength of the novel arises from the impression, carefully maintained, that the events are now being recalled rather than imagined. In fact, we rarely feel, reading Bellefleur, that Oates’s imagination is creatively alive; it never seems spontaneous. Even when we believe that something Bellefleur tells us is indeed true, we are never seized by its truth or by a conviction of its reality.
The chief quality of Oates’s imagination is obedience, and what it obeys is not nature or circumstance but other fiction especially other romances or tragedies. In Bellefleur the hero Gideon is not himself but any and every leonine hero from romantic fiction, complete with “his thin, lined cheeks, and his shadowed eyes, and the almost cruel turn of his lips.” At one point Gideon is visited by Garnet Hecht, one of the many women he has loved and discarded. They talk of Cassandra, the child they have had. “Am I the father?” Gideon asks Garnet “sardonically.” Garnet rushes out into the night to drown herself in the lake, but is prevented by Lord Dunraven—“I say you must not”—whom she will eventually marry.
These characters are never allowed to understand themselves or to guess that the origins of their feelings are in literature rather than in life. They think they are spontaneous, but their lives are only imitations of other fictive lives. The closest Garnet comes to understanding her situation comes just before the scene I’ve referred to:
Blushing, Garnet saw by the flickering light (and perhaps she saw inaccurately, for the candle did flicker) a most embarrassing tapestry hanging just to the right of the bed: it showed a scantily clad couple, the woman as well as the man quite full-bodied, and vigorous, and impatient to make love, being surprised in a boudoir by—could it be?—a lascivious little Cupid leading, down a staircase, a horse—a horse with outlandish long eyelashes and a queer human expression. The lovers gaped with surprise: and indeed who would not have been surprised?
Garnet was staring at this strange tapestry (she could not decide if it was obscene, or merely playful; or both; but in any case it should be taken down and stored at the very back of the closet) when she heard a sound in the corridor.
The sound in the corridor is Gideon, but it might well be another noise—the sound of Joyce Carol Oates coming to remove the tapestry lest Garnet begin to sense that her life is merely an imitation of such tapestries, of old romances. Even the American history in Bellefleur is already literature, and to be known only as literature.
I am trying to describe Oates’s imagination and the curiously elusive forms it takes, the disjunctions and discontinuities that make her books not exactly what they seem to be. So I am emphasizing that Oates knows, while preventing her characters from divining, that their lives are unconscious mimicries. Indeed, her books might have been written to justify the argument, common in such books as René Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel and Jacques Lacan’s Ecrits, that spontaneous desire is a fallacy; it is a delusion if held as a sentiment, and a lie when social institutions offer it as a natural possession. Garnet, Gideon, his wife Leah, and the many other characters in Bellefleur are allowed to think their feelings are their own; but they are kept as ignorant of the origin of those feelings as they are distraught with fears for their continuity. But I have to suggest how it comes about that the scene of Oates’s imagination is the space between one tapestry and another.
To begin with, she is not a realist, except in the deep-down sense in which all writers think themselves realists. She has written serviceable pages in which she places a character in his setting and glances at a few of the circumstances of his life, but her imagination does not seem really seized by the question of self and society, by the relation between a character’s indignant perception—to use a phrase of Lionel Trilling’s from The Opposing Self—and the objective sources of his indignation. Oates’s imagination is not circumstantial. Her subjects—politics, car racing, high life in Washington, college teaching, or whatever—are well-enough sketched, if only sketches were needed, but they are always there to be got through or got over; they are there for the sake of something else, for inner lives that are frantic precisely because they have no real connection with the objective life that surrounds them.
Raymond Williams has a telling passage in an essay on realism where he says that the typical experience, according to nineteenth-century realism, was that of “finding a place and making a settlement.” In that sense, too, Oates is not a realist: her characters are never content to make settlements or to settle for the diverse experience of trying to make them. It is closer to the mark to say that she is a Gothic romancer, but that, too, is a side issue. The Gothic element in her work is her substitute for tragedy, as black farce is her substitute for comedy. But it is enough, for the moment, if we say that Oates is a psychological novelist rather than a social novelist or a realist. She assumes that one’s feeling is one’s truth: value consists in the intensity of one’s feeling.
But I have to make a further distinction. I want to describe Oates as an essentialist. If essentialism is the doctrine that essence is prior to existence, an essentialist believes that the essence of one’s life is separate from one’s existence. Or even, to go back a little, that the essence of a particular life is the rift between the self and the circumstances, merely given and arbitrary, in which it appears. Essence is felt to be discontinuous with the existence assigned to it. Oates’s characters are given this discontinuity as their fate: if they are conscious, they try to take the harm out of it by stirring in themselves local intensities of feeling.
Oates has referred to the rift between essence and existence, but not, so far as I know, in these terms. She has spoken rather of invisibility and visibility, particularly in relation to the experience of being a woman:
A woman often feels “invisible” in a public sense precisely because her physical being—her “visibility”—figures so prominently in her identity. She is judged as a body, she is “attractive” or “unattractive,” while knowing that her deepest self is inward, and secret: knowing, hoping that her spiritual essence is a great deal more complex than the casual eye of the observer will allow. It might be argued that the poet, inhabiting a consciousness and a voice, is “invisible” as well; it might be argued that all persons, defined to themselves rather more as what they think and dream, than what they do, are “invisible.”
I take this from the afterword to Invisible Woman,* where Oates writes of invisibility as the major preoccupation of her poetry, but it applies also to her fiction. She is an essentialist, accepting a disjunction between surface and depth, the overt and the secret. When she sets “complex” against “casual” in the quoted afterword, she shows how she claims for a fate the status of a privilege. I don’t doubt her enormous hope of altering the world, but I trust the tales rather than the teller, and what they say is that life is so appalling, it exhilarates. Her characters don’t try to change their lives—except when they think of ending them, like Garnet—because they are not even aware of them as discontinuous. Intensity is the only value they recognize. So they keep themselves going in the void by exacerbating whatever incitements they are given.
The rift between essence and existence takes various forms in Oates’s fiction. At its simplest, it is the rift between making a life and making a living. Unholy Loves is supposedly about college teachers, but the one thing they are not shown doing is teaching. Bellefleur is a family saga, but the one thing you don’t learn from it is what the members of the family do, day by day: the most memorable chapter in the book is a set piece, an aria, the rat-killing episode in Chapter 60, which has nothing to do with anything but itself.
Ontario Review Press, 1982.↩
Ontario Review Press, 1982.↩