Joyce Carol Oates, author of some forty novels (nine written under an assumed name), twenty short story collections, six novellas, eight volumes of poetry, seven of plays, and nine of essays, may be our most prolific contemporary writer. She may also be our most critically confounding. Hosts of reviewers have thrown up their hands at her ever-expanding body of work and criticized her for writing too much, or revising too little, and for other actual or imagined literary infractions. Indeed, few writers in recent memory have inspired so many strident, often ad hominem attacks and denunciatory reviews, characterized by John Updike as “some of the harshest scoldings ever administered to a major talent.” She has been parodied in The New Yorker, and, in Harper’s in 1982, she was the subject of James Wolcott’s disdain in an article entitled “Stop Me Before I Write Again: Six Hundred More Pages by Joyce Carol Oates.” In an interview, Truman Capote once said, “To me, she’s the most loathsome creature in America.”
What is it about Oates’s work that has inspired such vitriol? While prodigious, her output must be matched or outmatched, page for page, by some of the long-winded nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century masters, among them Balzac (whose Comédie humaine alone consists of some ninety novels and novellas), George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Henry James. In a recent essay, Oates quotes admiringly Conrad’s famous description of writing as the “conversion of nervous force” into language, a description that aptly captures her own often breathless style, characterized by italicized interpolations, exclamations, and a galloping, frantic pace. It is a style that has invited parody. And her gender politics as perceived by feminists—she has summoned heroine after heroine of striking passivity, weakness, even masochism—have been determinedly unfashionable.
But Oates’s preoccupation with violence may be the ultimate source of the inflammatory rhetoric. As decades of critics have observed, Oates’s primary subject is victimhood, and her work features a kind of Grand Guignol of every imaginable form of physical, psychological, and sexual violence: rape, incest, murder, molestation, cannibalism, torture, and bestiality. While violence is commonly an element of fiction, no American writer has devoted herself with more disquieting intensity to the experience and consequences of being victimized, a devotion that seems, strangely, to have inspired a kind of reactionary violence all its own.
In the essay “Running and Writing,” collected in The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art, Oates invokes the exhilaration of both activities, which, for her, are closely related:
Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think what it might be. In running, the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain…. Ideally, the runner-who’s-a-writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.
But as she exhausts the superficial joys of these activities, Oates moves rapidly to their compulsive and “highly addictive” qualities, their “special solitude,” and finally, with a kind of inevitability, to their association with primal fears:
Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment.
If writing involves punishment, at least for some of us, the act of running even in adulthood can evoke painful memories of having been, long ago, as children, chased by tormentors…. Are there any adult women who have not been, in one way or another, sexually molested or threatened?
For Oates, exhilaration and stark terror exist side by side in her fiction as they have in her life, ever since her experience of violence as a child:
Often when I’m running in the most idyllic landscapes, I’m reminded of the panicked childhood running of decades ago; I was one of those luckless children without older brothers or sisters to protect her…. I…came to see years later that such abuse is generic, not personal; it must prevail through the species; it allows us insight into the experiences of others, a sense of what a more enduring panic, entrapment, suffering, and despair must be truly like.
In fact, Oates’s experience of childhood violence seems to have been anything but generic. Born in 1938 and growing up poor in a rural family farmhouse in upstate New York, outside Buffalo, Oates remembers vividly the same one-room schoolhouse in Niagara County that her mother had attended before her. A specific schoolyard incident of what she later termed “semi-molestation,” which occurred in the late 1940s, during the fourth grade, has become the touchstone and emotional impetus behind much of her work:
[to] be dragged, terrified, desperately resisting, in the direction of the boys’ outhouse, to the accompaniment of collective jeering and laughter, was a nightmare experience for younger girls.
The incident has been reenacted many times in her fiction, according to Invisible Writer, a richly detailed biography of Oates by Greg Johnson, a scholar who has identified “dozens” of instances of rape, incest, and molestation in her work.1 Such attacks are commonplace in Oates’s short stories and novels. In the novel Marya: A Life (1986):
She remembers, afterward, one of them prying her legs apart—she remembers him prodding and jabbing at her—trying to enter her—trying to force his penis in her—but she might have squirmed free, arching her back, or one of the others hauled him away.
Indeed, such violence seems to have been—despite close and caring parents—native to her extended family and rural upbringing. In 1995, in a New York Times Magazine article, she wrote:
As a writer I’ve been constantly queried why do you write about violent acts?… I might say that my entire life, indeed the lives of both my parents, have been shaped by “violent acts.”
Before she was born, her paternal great-grandfather attacked his wife with a hammer, then fatally shot himself; her maternal grandfather was beaten to death in a bar fight. Both events had lasting repercussions on the family fortunes. When she was seven, she saw the body of a dead man pulled from the Erie Canal with a hook, and recollections of her Hobbesian schoolyard days include
so many brutal, meaningless acts …incredible cruelty, profanity, obscenity…even (it was bragged) incest between a boy of about 13 and his 6-year-old sister…things done to animals.
Johnson reports that Oates’s adult life—she married soon after graduating from Syracuse University and pursued successful careers in both teaching and writing—has also been punctuated by brushes with violence. In the mid-1960s, a graduate student at the University of Detroit, where Oates was teaching, consulted her persistently and manically before suffering a psychotic breakdown and fatally shooting a local rabbi and then himself. In 1967—the year of the Detroit riots, when buildings only blocks from Oates’s home were looted and destroyed—another disturbed student made threats on her life.
While the Depression-era poverty of her childhood inspired Oates’s earliest fiction, particularly her second novel, A Garden of Earthly Delights (published in 1967 and revised and republished in 2003), she soon seized on the disruption and social unrest of the 1960s. Her student’s mental breakdown inspired the short story “In the Region of Ice,” which won an O. Henry Award in 1967. The 1969 novel them follows the travails of a poor white family through prostitution, rape, sodomy, and murder, from 1937 to the Detroit riots. This was the novel that made Oates famous, winning the National Book Award, landing her on the cover of Newsweek magazine in 1972, and inspiring comparisons of her social realism to that of Balzac and Dreiser.
The next phase of her career—a series of mannered gothic melodramas, Bellefleur (1980), A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984)—veered in a completely different direction. Set in cas- tles, peopled with such characters as a mass murderer, a sleepwalker, a vampire, an uncanny cat, and a bizarrely deformed baby, these works underscore Oates’s taste for horror—the grotesque and the extreme—extending it into the territory of Poe and the Brontës. Oates’s detour into genre fiction (as with her pseudonymous series of murder mysteries, written under the name Rosamond Smith, some of which take up such gothic subjects as twinning or doppelgängers) also illustrates her concern with violence-as-experienced-by-powerless-victim, the Poe-like nightmare of characters finding themselves buried alive or dancing at a masquerade with Death. “Gothicism,” she once told an interviewer for Time, “is not a literary tradition so much as a fairly realistic assessment of modern life.”
In recent years, Oates has returned to realism, often choosing American crimes as her subject. The novella Black Water (1992), inspired by Chappaquiddick, recounts the drowning of a young woman abandoned by a drunken senator. Zombie (1995), a portrait of a Jeffrey Dahmer–style sociopath, follows a serial killer as he goes about his gruesome routine. Rape: A Love Story recalls the rape of the Central Park jogger. These fictions based on real lives all reveal Oates’s trademark occupation with the corrosive effect of violence on personality, as if violence were an acid capable of eating away individuality, leaving behind some rudimentary animal core.
Black Water and Zombie are bookended portraits of the extreme self-effacement wrought by violence. In Black Water, the naive young Kelly Kelleher, having left a party in a Toyota driven by “The Senator” with a drink in his hand, finds herself flying off the road, sinking in a swamp, trapped in the car, and abandoned by the senator who staggers away from the scene, saving himself. As she struggles to breathe from a vanishing bubble of air, she helplessly relives her past, recent and distant, with visionary clarity, and fantasizes her rescue, flashing on the possibility that the accident had never happened:
And, yet, had it happened…? The car speeding skidding along the road that seemed to have no houses, no traffic only swampy land stretching for miles everywhere…and the harsh percussive rhythm of the insects’ cries in their mating as if sensing how time accelerated, how the moon would shortly topple from the sky turned upside down and Kelly saw without registering she saw (for she and The Senator were talking) in a shallow ditch beside the road a broken dinette table, the front wheel of an English racing bicycle, the headless naked body of a flesh-pink doll…looking away from the doll not wanting to see the hole between the shoulders like a bizarre mutilated vagina where the head had been wrenched off.
As she approaches death, her personality seems to empty out and fragment into successive images, memories, and hallucinations, as if she herself were a doll thrown by the roadside, reduced to a truncated shell vaguely suggestive of sex.
The dissolution of personality that violence creates is the exclusive purview of Zombie, one of Oates’s most remarkable works, a brilliant treatment of a sordid, peculiarly American subject. In 1994, Oates reviewed for The New York Review of Books ten titles about serial killers and subsequently reproduced with uncanny accuracy the serial killer’s blank inability to empathize or maintain human relationships, his contempt for others and tendency to grandiosity, and his weird fetishizing of body parts and crippling, lethal fantasies and urges.2 In the first-person narration of Quentin P__, or, as he refers to himself, Q__P__, she recreates the inner life of such a person as he goes about manipulating his unwitting parents, and his parole officer and therapists, who mistakenly believe him guilty of an attempted sexual molestation of a younger man, someone he was actually stalking in order to enslave and murder:
I open my mouth to speak & there’s this voice comes out, it’s Q__P__’s but like another guy’s too, somebody on TV maybe… stammering saying how ashamed I was to betray the loving trust of my Mom & Dad.
Meanwhile he lays plans to abduct and lobotomize a series of victims in his attempt to create for himself “a true ZOMBIE”:
A true ZOMBIE would be mine forever…. A ZOMBIE would pass no judgment. A ZOMBIE would say, “God Bless you, Master.” He would say, “You are good, Master. You are kind & merciful.” He would say, “Fuck me in the ass, Master, until I bleed blue guts.” He would beg for his food & he would beg for oxygen to breathe. He would beg to use the toilet not to soil his clothes…. He would never laugh or smirk or wrinkle his nose in disgust. He would lick with his tongue as bidden. He would suck with his mouth as bidden. He would spread the cheeks of his ass as bidden…. We would lie beneath the covers in my bed in the CARETAKER’s room listening to the March wind & the bells of the Music College tower chiming & WE WOULD COUNT THE CHIMES UNTIL WE FELL ASLEEP AT EXACTLY THE SAME MOMENT.
Told from the point of view of the murderer and not the victim, Zombie would seem to turn Oates’s victim-centered paradigm on its head, but even here she remains exquisitely tuned to the victim’s experience. Q__P__’s narcissistic recitation of his acts vividly reveals the victims’ experiences, so vividly it seems a mercy when they expire during his crude home surgeries:
BUNNYGLOVES [Q__P__’s name for his first victim] who I had such hope for, him being the first, convulsed like a madman when I pushed the ice pick at the angle in the diagram through the “bony orbit” above the eyeball (or whatever it was, splintering bone) & screamed through the sponge I’d shoved & tied in his mouth…but he did not regain consciousness dy- ing in twelve minutes…. My first ZOMBIE—a grade of fucking F.
Of course, Q__P__ is the true zombie, so frantically driven and corrupt that he comes to seem both monstrous and pitiable, both murderer and victim of murderous compulsions, more a collection of perverse appetites than a coherent personality.
Not all of Oates’s fictional explorations of violence and victimhood are so successful. The recent Rape, for example, is a complicated failure. Here, the victims—attractive thirty-five-year- old working-class single mother Teena Maguire and her twelve-year-old daughter Bethie, the mother gang-raped in a boathouse in a Niagara Falls park on the night of the Fourth of July, the daughter beaten and traumatized—are so helpless, so defenseless, they seem infantilized with their baby names and baby talk. Much of the novella is told in a stilted second person from Bethie’s point of view: “You recalled your mother’s baffled cry. ‘Why? Why would they want to hurt me?'” The rapists—largely faceless losers and thugs—are so irredeemably vicious that it is impossible for the reader to care or find it credible when Teena’s secret protector, Niagara Falls policeman John Dromoor, picks them off one by one before the trial, which we’re given to understand will unfairly revictimize the victim: “He felt good about the future. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. In time.”
Despite having been inspired by famous recent rapes—although the case of the Central Park jogger has been notably more complex as it unfolded than the fictional crime described here—the novella seems disconnected from contemporary culture, like Oates herself by her own admission. Johnson quotes a 1984 journal entry describing her reaction to pop culture glimpsed on a grocery store magazine rack:
Things entirely alien to me. Not even Time or Newsweek. Magazines about soap operas, “daytime t.v.,” rock stars, movie stars, homemaking, guns, action comics. My sense of total disengagement; disinterest. Have I lived too long? I wondered.
In Rape, despite a cursory list of tabloid headlines in a chapter titled “Media Frenzy,” the rape seems to occur in a media vacuum, without mass coverage, news analysis, and made-for-TV movies. The question of how such events play out in the larger culture—and how society itself influences them—is never addressed.
In two recent full-length novels and a new collection of stories, however, Oates’s talent for channeling unique fictional voices—and her fascination with how personality can dissolve, transform, or mutate over time—is richly in evidence. In the autobiographical I’ll Take You There, which draws on Oates’s breakdown from exhaustion while living in a sorority at Syracuse University, the novel’s three sections trace a young woman coming of age during the 1960s through radically different phases.
The novel begins with a quotation from Wittgenstein, “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” The first of the self-perceptions, or pictures, imprisoning the narrator—her self-invented name is Anellia—is defined in the novel’s opening: “In those days in the early Sixties we were not women yet but girls. This was, without irony, perceived as our advantage.” A scholarship student from a poor rural background, she begins by wanting to be such a girl: a well-off, socially acceptable “active” sister of Kappa Gamma Pi wholeheartedly devoted to its clannish rituals. But as soon as she finds herself in that coveted picture, she discovers it to be a “prison-house” in which she is despised for her studiousness and dishevelment and bankrupted by Kappa “social fees” and fines. Finally, in a frenzy of self-loathing, serving tea at an alumni function, she detonates a social bomb of such force that it blows her clear out of stagnant sorority waters:
…At the foot of the stairs there stood our vigilant chapter president who wheeled me about by the elbow and marched me into the deafening hive of the living room…. Somehow I heard myself say…that I did not believe I belonged in Kappa Gamma Pi, a Christian sorority, I was an imposter in this gathering; and these older Kappa sisters laughed thrilled as if I’d said something witty, it might have been my face, people wished to believe that I was being witty and not something else…. I said, “I’m not a Christian and Kappa Gamma Pi is for just Christian girls—no Jews—but no Negroes either—isn’t it?.” …We were an island of consternation amid a sea of innocently festive voices and laughter. I could not think of an apology. For in truth I didn’t feel apologetic but defiant. I was defiant!
Her next incarnation is more intimate. Dressed in thrift-shop finery, steeped in Spinoza and high-minded analysis of ethics and politics, she pursues the coolly reluctant Vernor Matheius, a graduate student who affects an emotional removal from everything but the study of philosophy and whose blackness appeals to her newly discovered defiance. Soon, however, she unwittingly provokes his rage and rejection by discovering a photograph of the black wife and children he has abandoned; immediately, she must remake herself yet again:
I saw with a stab of certainty what I would do: I would return to my room and toss my costume-clothes into a heap, my cheaply glamorous secondhand things purchased with such misguided hope; I would cut these things into pieces with a scissors; as once I’d cut my long, bristling hair;…my heart beat hard with the certainty of all I would do, and would not regret doing; I would step into history, as Vernor had scorned;…I would find a way of bringing my intense inner life, my questing life, into balance with history; I would be fearless, or give that impression; I would be fearless, though frightened; I would march with Negroes and whites and confront the race-hatred of my race…. I would expiate my guilt; I would remake myself another time, empowered by loss, grief.
The ease and accuracy with which Oates places Anellia in rural small town, sorority, and sordid student apartment are a reminder of how deft she has always been in capturing the social realities of American life as it is lived on the periphery, in suburbs, ghettos, college towns, high schools, backwaters, and marginal communities. Oates has defined not only upstate New York but all those interstitial American spaces where people have few choices beyond remaking themselves “another time.”
In one such place, Crescent, Utah, Anellia finds her father dying of cancer. Her chosen name, from the word “anneal,” means to strengthen and toughen through a process of heating and cooling, and her final transformation suggests that personality is less a collection of ephemeral traits than something more primitive, something more like will and the almost physical vigor required to exercise it. Called to her father’s deathbed but thwarted in her desire to see him by Hildie, his dwarflike, otherworldly nurse, Anellia again finds herself pressed back by some controlling force, this time literally:
Three times I would be brought into my father’s presence, and three times cautioned not to turn to look at him…. I was conscious of Hildie’s sharp nails in my shoulder, and of my father’s wheezing breath.
On her last visit, she asserts her will, outwitting her father’s guardian and stealing a virtually primal glance:
I did not turn my head so much as a fraction of an inch after Hildie hurried to answer the phone; but I’d brought with me that morning, in a shirt pocket, the piece of mirror I’d found…covertly I slipped this out of the pocket and raised it slowly to eye level…and saw a sight that I couldn’t at first interpret, my vision was blurred and blotched as if I were staring through water. A skeletal figure propped against a filthy pillow. A bald head that looked enlarged or in some way misshapen, and a ravaged face crosshatched with deep lines and veins; the skin was both ashen and reddened, as if it had been boiled; the gaping mouth disappeared into the upper jaw and the lower jaw was hardly more than a flap of lacerated toothless gum;… The eyes! I would not have recognized my father’s face except for the eyes…. As in a dream of horror, as I stared into the little mirror close beside my face, the eyes seemed to shift to mine; the face angrily creased, like a glove being crumpled in a hand; the skeletal body shuddered, and there came a groaning, near-inaudible Uhhhh-uhh of reproach.
The mythical or biblical quality of the description—three times she is brought in his presence, three times cautioned not to look, as if she were Lot’s wife—lends symbolic weight to the encounter. Her father dies at the moment she sees him; Hildie is “livid with rage” when she learns that the daughter will inherit his meager estate. But Anellia can now undertake “the first fully adult act of my adult life”—shipping her father’s body back home to be buried in the family plot. Having come through trials of hysteria and defiance, the narrator feels “a delirium of exhaustion, sorrow, relief…the relief was predominant.” If Black Water and Zombie are parables of the destruction and disintegration of personality, I’ll Take You There is a parable of what it takes to create one.
The Tattooed Girl also focuses on a malleable, albeit disfigured and damaged, young woman from rural Pennsylvania, so blank of mind and passive in response that she parrots her father’s and boyfriend’s anti-Semitic slurs while barely understanding what they mean. She cannot account for the faint tattoos that cover her face, neck, and arms: “It was like trying to figure out why they’d tattooed her, the guys she’d trusted. Feeding her vodka and some kind of meth? crystal? she’d never know….”
Oates refers to the girl through much of the novel as “the Tattooed Girl,” although her name is Alma, Latin for “nourishing”; indeed, the girl is transformed, over the course of the novel, from a virtual blank slate crudely scribbled upon, first by her brutish father and brothers, then by an abusive boyfriend, into something of an earth mother.
The agency of her transformation is her relationship to Joshua Seigl, the wealthy, middle-aged, reclusive author of a best-selling novel about the Holocaust. Suffering from a neurological disease, Seigl is forced to hire an assistant. He rejects the acolytes and serious literary young men who apply for the job—they incite his feelings of inadequacy for having published little since his famous novel—in favor of Alma, whom he perceives as “a young farm creature, a sleek young calf for instance, waiting to be herded in one direction,” not realizing that he has hired a woman who secretly thinks, “I hate him. Hate his whiskers, his fat Jew lips,” and so virulently resents his wealth and privilege that she tampers with his medication, tears up his manuscript pages, and contemplates murdering him. Their relationship seems like a potentially fatal collision between his condescension and her ignorance. But as Seigl’s health deteriorates and the Tattooed Girl begins to see how much he relies on her, emotionally and physically, their fierce stereotypical beliefs start to fade, as if they too were inexpertly applied tattoos.
Although the novel ends melodramatically, with Seigl’s death and Alma’s subsequent murder at the hands of his deranged sister, the characters remain believable, their barely conscious motivations grounded in physical feeling:
The thought that she might easily kill her employer who trusted her didn’t come to the Tattooed Girl fully formed. Few thoughts came to her fully formed. Alma’s thinking followed acts performed by her body. She surprised herself by uttering things she had not known she knew.
Oates’s particular genius lies in her ability to render the profoundly, violently physical nature of human emotions—disgust, contempt, resentment, humiliation, anxiety, fear, as well as attraction and love—that, more often than not, bend us to their will.
Oates’s view of human personality as fundamentally changeable seems to have been shaped by experience, which led not to conventional self-doubt but to something more extreme: doubt about the very existence of the self. In I Am No One You Know, her most recent collection of short fiction, the victim of yet another serial killer, “The Girl with the Blackened Eye,” muses on this very question:
What you call your personality, you know?—it’s not like actual bones, or teeth, something solid. It’s more like a flame. A flame can be upright, and a flame can flicker in the wind, a flame can be extinguished so there’s no sign of it, like it had never been.
This doubt about personality is certainly an element of her consistently held and rigorously explored world view that asks of readers: Who are we? What does it mean to be a person? Is a personality something stable and coherent, or is it, in fact, as shifting, unreliable, vanishing, and potentially catastrophic as the weather?
The title story of I Am No One You Know addresses this directly and unforgettably. Two sons visit their Alzheimer’s-stricken father at Meadowbrook Manor, a nursing home. Introducing himself to his father, the narrator describes the unspoken feelings that pass between himself and his brother:
The terror between us was This isn’t Dad. This elderly man. Not Dad any longer. We could not look at each other, our eyes could not meet out of dread of Then we are not brothers, either. For we have no father any longer.
During a walk around the nursing home’s garden, the narrator recognizes another one of the inmates, “Mr. M__,” a former teacher and tormentor. When Mr. M__ approaches, “wizened as a scrawny child,” the narrator sees only the man as he was, not as he is, and reacts accordingly:
I saw how, as his eyes lighted upon us, Mr. M__’s expression turned hopeful, shrewd. For the first time I saw how his dentures glared like cheap porcelain. Boys? Take me with you? Take me with you? He lurched near me, his palsied hand groped for my arm, and I shoved him from me. Mr. M__’s fetid breath in my face, that made me gag. Don’t touch me, I said.
Shoving him from me I said, You’re not going anywhere with anyone, you old bastard. Your place is here, you get to die here.
Earlier, walking into the home, he had pitied the “elderly strangers” who called to him, thinking he was their son: “I wanted to explain, apologize. I’m not your son, I am no one you know.” That cry, juxtaposed with fear and contempt, comes close to the heart of Oates’s work. In her world, our very identity—and that of everyone we think we know—may be the most impenetrably sinister mystery of all.
June 24, 2004