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Wonder Woman

Another form of the disjunction is the rift between feelings, deemed to be by definition secret and complex, and any manifestation available to them. Oates has quoted, as the epigraph to Unholy Loves, a passage from Soliloquies in England where Santayana remarks that “some philosophers seem to be angry with images for not being things, and with words for not being feelings; words and images are like shells—not less integral parts of nature than the substances they cover, but better addressed to the eye and more open to observation.” Santayana is not angry, he accepts that words are not feelings, and that it is to ask enough of words that they shelter feelings, as shells protect what they cover. But Oates is not as urbane as Santayana; mainly, I think, because she is not as sure of her feelings, and distrusts the appearances of their continuity. The hectic quality of her common style is explained by the fact that her characters, knowing nothing but their feelings, and always ignorant of their provenance, have to know them desperately: their knowledge can never have the urbanity of knowing that it is typical, either in its origins or its aspiration. They know themselves only as unique: it is desolation when they suspect they aren’t.

I think this accounts for the panic in Oates’s heroes and, more often, heroines—panic of the sort we see in Garnet when she runs to drown herself in the lake, or stares at the tapestry. The intensity of their feelings is to themselves the only evidence that they exist. Hence the frantic sense, which occurs almost as a nervous tic in these characters, that they can’t feel, or can’t feel enough, so they are dead. The life of her characters depends upon the desperately asserted superiority of feeling to the world, since their sole relation is to themselves. At this point the distinction between Oates and her characters is hard to maintain. She can’t trust feeling enough to let it be, or to think of it as being sheltered and protected by the words for it, or by the extension of the words into the world at large, where feeling might be transformed. So she forces words into the pretense of being feelings, and asserts as their truth the extreme reach of her rhetoric. A risky procedure; it makes much of her writing, as in the chapters in Bellefleur on Veronica Bellefleur’s love for Ragnar Norst, sound like a parody of Daphne du Maurier:

She understood. Yet of course she did not understand. But her head was so heavy, her eyelids burned with the need to close, if only he would embrace her, if only he would whisper to her the words she so fervently wished to hear….

Deprived of other sources of life, Oates’s characters must be given, by way of exorbitance and self-exacerbation, whatever they need to assure them that they are alive. Having given them the empty privilege of self-identity, Oates has to pretend that their emptiness is fullness of a secret kind.

Here is a passage from The Assassins (1975). Hugh Petrie has been whining to his sister-in-law Yvonne, and she has been disengaging herself from him:

He said something further, but she was not listening. She was excited, frightened. It occurred to her that she had made an error, long ago—something to do with this man—a thought she had had about him but hadn’t taken seriously—she had lost her instinctive powers—something was going from her, fading, draining away—suspicion lay very lightly on the surface of her being now, skittering across her skin—and she stood back from it, did not heed it—

Nothing in Oates’s presentation of Yvonne makes it convincing that she should assign to her the feeling about suspicion lying on the “surface of her being.” The words are a flourish, but they issue from Oates’s addiction to this kind of thing as her way of enhancing her characters, rather than from any sensibility we might be persuaded to think of as Yvonne’s. Oates is trying to make up for Yvonne’s emptiness by forcing these words to constitute a sentiment which she can then, however improbably, assign to her, a sentiment that makes up in height for what it lacks in any authority she might imagine for it. The phrases are not composed in the hope of understanding experience but with the desperate intention of forcing a conceit, a verbal happening, to count as a sentiment for long enough to make it adhere to Yvonne. Oates is trying to make the words feel, even though no amount of adhesive paste, at this stage, will make them stick to Yvonne.

Much the same arises in Angel of Light (1981), where Nick Martens is murmuring to his lost, deceived friend Maurie Halleck:

But to know at last what one is, Nick murmurs aloud to Maurie, the corners of his eyes crinkling, to know the most magnanimous perimeter of one’s soul: not just one’s value on the market, but one’s worth in secret!—and he finds himself smiling at the sudden image of an enormous buzzing fly hovering…lowering itself with its many legs extended…squatting…quivering greedily…on a great unspeakable pile of shit.

Apart from the fact that the hovering fly comes from a famous scene in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, probably by way of Allen Tate’s essay “The Hovering Fly” in which its force is elaborately pondered, and apart, too, from our doubt whether the exorbitance of “unspeakable” is Nick’s or Joyce Carol Oates’s, there is the question of that magnanimous perimeter. Oates is doing for Nick what she has done for Yvonne, giving him sentiments for nothing, like a complementary copy of The Idiot. The magnanimous perimeter of one’s soul is a handsome phrase, but Nick is so limited that he wouldn’t know where it is or how to traverse it. Oates would know, and she is trying to keep Nick alive by giving him her knowledge. Unsure about Nick’s feeling and therefore about his life, she can at least be sure of the words, however exorbitant, seeing them on the page.

Oates has another way of considering this matter, apart from the question of invisibility. She often makes it a question of voice, of finding one’s own or separating oneself from a defunct voice. In Unholy Loves the heroine Brigit Stott is reading a book of poems by the famous English poet Albert St. Dennis:

She reads, loses the thread of meaning, begins again. What is the story, the pattern, the myth that I live? the poet asks. What is the voice that attends me? She reads passages and hears the old man’s voice drowning out this young man’s passionate words.

Returning to her apartment, Brigit thinks about her own writing, her unwritten novel:

She is lost, it is hopeless, she can never handle so much material. But the characters are living people, they demand to be heard in their own voices, they are far more real than the people Brigit sees in Woodslee, they will insist upon the mad proliferation of details that constitute their lives.

Then she muses in unison with Joyce Carol Oates:

Her external self, her social persona, Brigit Stott, hardly represented her—it was, in fact, an indifferent performance at best, since her imagination was usually elsewhere; and she assumed that the same was true of everyone. The interior life is rich and deep and strange and inexplicable, and the exterior life—the “social” life—is no more complex than it needs to be. Brigit Stott is a character she lavishes little skill on: it is a vessel, a means, a transparency.

Oates, too, asks herself: what is the voice that attends me? Excluding from Invisible Woman many early poems and her entire first book, she explains that “it isn’t so much that I have rejected them as poems, as that I fail to recognize my own voice in them: I feel no kinship, no sense of continuity. That aspect of the past is finally past—and cannot be retrieved.” But the explanation seems disingenuous. It is not that one aspect of the past is past, but that the voice she hears now is one she doesn’t want to hear.

It is not clear from Oates’s account of it what she means by voice. It could mean a writer’s achieved style, something that comes at last, presumably, with luck, practice, and discipline. Does she mean voice as the only appearance, the only form of existence, in which she is willing to have her essence manifested, as if in that one instance she were willing to posit a relation between essence and existence, not as a permanent attribute but good for the time being? Her secret self, audible while the going is good? But if that is what she means, why is she willing to lend her voice to Nick or Yvonne or Leah or Kirsten or anyone who happens to come along, magnanimously extending their otherwise narrow perimeters?

It is only by thinking along these lines that I can make anything of A Bloodsmoor Romance. If I had never read a line of Joyce Carol Oates and merely happened to come upon this new book, I would find it almost unreadable. It is a parody Victorian romance, beginning with the cruel abduction, on September 23, 1879, at seven o’clock in the evening, of one Deirdre Louisa Zinn, adopted daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Quincy Zinn of Kiddemaster Hall, duly haunted. Deirdre has four “sisters,” Constance, Octavia, Malvinia, and Samantha. In 1880 Constance marries Baron Adolf von Mainz, but on their wedding night she places a dressmaker’s dummy where her own tremulous body should be, causing the Baron to deal with it as if it were the real warm thing. Constance then runs away, and lives the rest of her life as a man named Philippe Fox. Malvinia, too, runs off, but takes one Orlando Vandenhoffen with her: eventually, discarding him, she achieves a great career on the stage and has an affair with Mark Twain. Deirdre herself turns up as Deirdre of the Shadows, a trance medium sponsored by Madame Blavatsky, W.B. Yeats’s associate. And so, indeed, on.

The language of the book is adorned with many ofts, nays, and alases, not to speak of “the outlaw euphoria of the racing pulse”:

Know, O Reader, that, after upward of twelve months’ agitation, during which time poor Prudence oft questioned herself, as to whether, in the fever of her own heart’s adulation, she might not be imagining all, the dread impasse betwixt the young lovers was resolved!—resolved, I am happy to say, most agreeably for all, and, as Chance would merrily have it, in the very house in which Prudence had initially met her “fate.”

Even as a joke, it’s very long.

The only way I can account for the book is by a supposition. Suppose Joyce Carol Oates, worn out with extending everybody’s perimeters, were to long for a rest; to get away from the questioning of voice, her own voice, other voices, and the diverse importunities of her characters, their selves and feelings, their repetitive solitudes. Wouldn’t she find it a relief to be writing a book that required nothing but the rough-and-ready allusion to other books, books that have as their chief attribute the fact, thanks be to God, that nobody is required to care about them? She could deal with the demands of her current voice by silencing them; as if to say: “I will get back to you, or to whatever lavish form your successor will take, in my next.” Wouldn’t it be a particular pleasure for her to produce characters who have no responsibility for the objective world, having no relation to it; and to let them rush about in the paperchase where she found them, that of Victorian popular romance?

Or so A Bloodsmoor Romance seems to me. To a recent reviewer, apparently, it seems otherwise, its real subject “the lot of women, especially the customs and attitudes that confined and oppressed them in the nineteenth century, but also the present-day remnants of those conditions.” If A Bloodsmoor Romance were offered as a serious account of the lot of women, then or now, it would be ludicrously inadequate to its theme. I think it wholly removed from such a concern. I see no merit in forcing upon the book the social density and public ramification which Joyce Carol Oates has taken care to exclude from it.

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