Joyce Carol Oates still bothers people—in all kinds of ways. For more than forty-five years she has been steadily producing novels, short stories, poems, essays, plays. Between the beginning of 2000 and the end of 2005 she published nineteen books. She has written over seven hundred short stories, more than Maupassant, Kipling, and Chekhov combined. There can’t be many literary quarterlies or little magazines in which Oates hasn’t appeared. They range from Agni to Zoetrope, and include both Family Circle and Playboy, Virginia Quarterly Review and Cosmopolitan.
In her archives at Syracuse University lie the finished manuscripts of several books she mysteriously decided not to publish, most notably The Crosswicks Horror, which was intended as a companion to her pastiches of nineteenth-century sensation fiction, Bellefleur and A Bloodsmoor Romance. She’s brought out psychological suspense thrillers under the pen names Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly—and even written children’s books (Come Meet Muffin!) and young adult novels.
Her work is regularly chosen for The Best American Short Stories—and for The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. In her thirties she won the National Book Award for Them, and in her sixties We Were the Mulvaneys was picked as an Oprah Book Club choice. In the years between, she received, among many other honors, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the International Horror Writers Guild. For more than twenty-five years she’s been rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.
Such astonishing range and productivity might instill envy in even the industrious Henry James and Virginia Woolf (the serious professional writers with whom Oates most identifies). Yet throughout her life Oates has also been a professor of English, first at the University of Detroit, and for many years now at Princeton. Her students have included the youthful novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, who has said that she acted as his mentor in producing his widely admired Everything Is Illuminated. Teaching clearly matters to her, since she could have afforded to give it up long ago.
With her husband Raymond Smith, moreover, Oates has edited The Ontario Review and, from time to time, published books under its imprint. She has regularly contributed substantial essays and reviews to, among others, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. Somehow, the seemingly tireless writer also keeps a journal, plays the piano, jogs, gardens, draws, cooks, and reads as indefatigably as she writes. (But she doesn’t watch television: TV, Oates has said, is “for people who are skimming along on the surface of life.”) Her good friend the scholar Elaine Showalter once remarked that you had but to mention a book and “Joyce will have the novel read by next week.”
In short, Joyce Carol Oates is a major one-woman industry. Her journal tells us that she writes from 8 till 1 every day, then again for two or three hours in the evening. And she revises and polishes and reworks page after page after page. Such commitment, coupled with her literary fecundity, unnerves many people. Surely so many books can’t be that good, that deeply felt, truly authentic?
If you don’t know the answer to those questions already, read The Gravedigger’s Daughter, her novel of last May about immigrants from Nazi Germany who settle in upstate New York. Though one may argue about aspects of the book, there can be no question of its power and conviction. The same can be said about most of Oates’s major novels. Look at her paperbacks and nearly every other one is acclaimed as her best work yet. Constantly exploring new aspects of American life, Joyce Carol Oates has restlessly evolved as an artist.
Her short stories, in which she sometimes reacts to earlier works of art or experiments with form, may be even better than her novels, if only because the need for concision often seems to inhibit her instinct to be expansive and leisurely. In “The Lady with the Pet Dog” she brilliantly reimagines Chekhov’s most heartbreaking story (and in “The Dead” and “The Metamorphosis” reconceives Joyce and Kafka).* “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” and “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Corrections, and Began My Life Over Again” have long been classroom classics.
Still, Joyce Carol Oates distresses more than a few writers and critics. She can raise doubts and misgivings—about effort, ability, and commitment—in nearly any novelist or essayist (except, possibly, John Updike). Similarly, critics—on the printed page or in conversation—all too frequently deride Oates’s work for its copiousness; some suggest it is the product of obsessive-compulsive behavior. Often, I suspect, this crude reductionism derives from reviewer’s angst: How does one judge a new book by Oates when one is not familiar with most of the backlist? Where does one start? In an interview with Robert Phillips, Oates neatly answers this:
I note and can to some extent sympathize with the objurgatory tone of certain critics who feel that I write too much because, quite wrongly, they believe they ought to have read most of my books before attempting to criticize a recently published one…. Yet each book is a world unto itself, and must stand alone and it should not matter whether a book is a writer’s first, or tenth, or fiftieth.
Furthermore, she reasonably concludes, “It may be that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones.”
Not least, there’s also a common complaint about the character of Oates’s fiction—that it is grim, full of violence, relentlessly dark in tone, and largely populated by psychopaths (usually male) and their prey (usually female). When people describe her novels they generally reach for words like Dreiserian, gothic, expressionist, and grotesque. Though Oates can be funny—most obviously in some of her scenes of academic life, but also in books like A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982)—she admits that her imagination “seems to turn instinctively toward the central, centralizing act of violence.” In fact, she points out that such violence generally “seems to symbolize something beyond itself. Like a lightning flash illuminating part of a culture or an era.” She questions whether her writing is unduly violent: to her mind, she’s simply presenting the moral and social conditions of America. “Most of my novels and stories,” she told an interviewer,
are explorations of the contemporary world interpreted in a realist mode, from what might be called a tragic and humanistic viewpoint. Tragedy always upholds the human spirit because it is an exploration of human nature in terms of its strengths. One simply cannot know strengths unless suffering, misfortune, and violence are explored quite frankly by the writer.
Hence such common Oatesean themes as racism, anti-Semitism, adultery, alcoholism, religious fanaticism, legal chicanery, brutality against women, working-class despair, and madness leading to murder. This is, after all, the world we live in. Where Oates excels is in her ability to inhabit her doomed or depraved people—she calls it being “haunted” by them—even as they take us into some very dark places.
If Joyce Carol Oates and her prodigality and the violence of her fiction continue to bother people, this is really as it should be. People grouse about every important writer: Cormac McCarthy is too gruesome and bloody, Philip Roth too obsessed with sex, John Updike too exquisite a stylist. Yet as Cocteau said: “What the public criticizes you for, cultivate: It is you.” Oates is deeply serious about literature, not about popularity or the marketplace. She cites Nietzsche approvingly in her journal: “To make the individual uncomfortable, that is my task.” This prodigious author, in every sense of the adjective, writes the sort of fiction that aims to honor Kafka’s famous prescription:
The books we need are of the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from all human habitation—a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.
Perhaps the chief interest in The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973–1982 lies in its ongoing analysis of Oates’s artistic life—and in her vexation with many of the misapprehensions about her work and aesthetics, especially her productivity. The book’s editor, Greg Johnson (who is also Oates’s biographer), has excised family news and, unfortunately, academic gossip as well. Neither is there much here about the books Oates is reading, the classes she teaches, or the people she knows. Despite some portraits of noted writers—John Gardner, John Updike, Philip Roth, Susan Sontag—this is largely a journal of the interior life, one that emphasizes the author’s more theoretical and philosophical views about the nature of art, while also describing her creative routine and recording her progress on the current book (in these years, The Assassins, Childwold, and Bellefleur, among others).
Alongside such professional concerns, these pages also reflect periodically on the happiness Oates has found in her life with Raymond Smith. Though her husband hardly appears in the journal, she makes it clear that their relationship provides the foundation for her ordered life of joyful work:
The days, the marvelous rich days …passing…accumulating. If ever I look back upon this phase of my life I will have to admit: that was as close to heaven as one might reasonably expect.
Early on, she notes that after fourteen years of marriage she and Smith had probably not spent more than two or three nights apart.
Oates likes to quote the first half of a celebrated Flaubert dictum: “Live like a bourgeois” (leaving implied, perhaps through diffidence, its conclusion: “in order to write like a genius”). Only because her own life is so ordered, or so she suggests, can she plunge into the disordered worlds and characters of her books. “If I lived a difficult life, if I were unstable, how could I write a novel like The Assassins or the Spider Monkey, how could I explore such lives?” Drawing on a famous remark from Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s Axel, she adds, “As for sinning, my characters can do that for me.” (Like many well-read people, Oates frequently quotes or paraphrases, usually without identifying the source.) She also confesses that her reputation as a fragile shut-in is partly of her own making: illness provides a simple way to refuse invitations to lecture or travel. After all, if one is perfectly happy writing and teaching, why bother?
I love to wake up early and begin to read. While the house is absolutely silent—Ray still asleep, nothing in motion. And then, after he’s awake, work at my desk. Until 1:30 or 2. Then have breakfast (apple & cottage cheese). Then return to my desk…. Anything, everything, charms me at such times. Working on The Possessed [for an essay] or my own novel; dreamily shuffling through my old notes for stories or for Bellefleur; writing letters, postcards; staring out the window (at the perpetually falling snow—and occasionally cardinals, and often sparrows, in the berry bushes; today it’s snowing so thickly that the river is invisible); thinking about the University; about students, classes, colleagues, things I must do, books I must read; day-dreaming; doodling; rewriting a brief chapter in Evening & Morning; browsing through things that have found their way onto my desk, for some reason; thinking vaguely ahead, as the afternoon darkens, to dinner….
At least some of this artful “daydreaming” and “doodling” finds its way into her journal:
The obvious motive for much of literature is the assuaging of homesickness, for a place or a time now vanished; less obviously, to the reader kept at a little distance by the writer’s coolly crafted “art,” the motive may be to assuage hurt and/or to rationalize it.
I have noted in certain reviews an exasperated, angry tone, as if the reviewer disliked me personally. But no one needs to read my writing or even to comment on it. A baffling thing…. It’s as if I were resented for my very seriousness, the obvious depth of my commitment.
The list of my books…is overwhelming. So many books! So many! Obviously JCO has a full career behind her, if one chooses to look at it that way; many more titles and she might as well… what?…give up all hopes for a “reputation”? I know that I am absolutely serious; I know that I am both dogged and inspired, and occasionally ecstatic; I do brood over my writing, and revise a great deal; but I work hard, and long, and as the hours roll by I seem to create more than I anticipate; more, certainly, than the literary world allows for a “serious” writer. Yet I have more stories to tell, and more novels…. It isn’t a problem everyone has to face….
At times Oates is clearly troubled by critical reaction to her writing, and many of her observations carry an air of self-defense. Similarly, her praise of a settled life without upset or surprises (or noisy children) can sometimes verge on self-satisfaction. Yet Oates recognizes how much she owes to luck, especially when she looks back on the hardscrabble upstate New York region in which she grew up and where she attended the same one-room school as her mother.
That world, the background for many of her books, imbues The Gravedigger’s Daughter with much of its gloomy, Hardyesque power. As Oates has written,
One of the little-understood responsibilities of the artist is to bear witness—in almost a religious sense—to certain things. The experience of the concentration camps…the experience of suffering, the humiliation of any form of persecution…. The experience of being a woman in a patriarchal culture.
All these themes can be found in this suspenseful journey through the life and inner world of Rebecca Schwart.
The first third of The Gravedigger’s Daughter presents a picture of desperate poverty and resentment. After escaping from Nazi Germany the schoolteacher Jacob Schwart makes his way to America with his wife, two sons, and a daughter, Rebecca, born in New York Harbor—“The only one of the damn family,” her older brother Herschel taunts her, “born this side of the ‘Lantic Ozean that never needed any damn vissas or papers.” In the western New York town of Milburn, unable to find any other work, Schwart is reduced to begging for the job of gravedigger. A proud and troubled man, he then grows increasingly estranged from the townspeople, reviling “those others” who have “unmanned” him. He walks the streets as “a troll-man, broken-backed and limping, in soiled work clothes and a cloth cap that looked as if they’d been hacked out of a substance harsher than mere cloth.” Jacob takes out some of his pent-up rage on his family; the kids do all they can not “to set Pa off.”
Meanwhile, his wife Anna, who once played the piano and sang lieder, starts to withdraw from this frightening new world, eventually hiding in her room when the occasional visitor calls at their hovel at the edge of the cemetery. At length, tormented by his memories of the fatherland and humiliated by the life he has found in his adopted country (where his family gets called both “Nazi” and “Jew”), Schwart’s suppressed rage erupts in an act of horrific violence: he kills his wife and nearly does the same to Rebecca, before committing suicide. The scene is one of staggering abruptness for, like so much of the experience Oates deals with, it is arrived at not through any account of Schwart’s inner life but rather through a close accretion of external belittlement and defeat whose effect we are left to infer.
Well before this happens, the gray, claustral household has been as suffocating to the reader as it has been to Rebecca. At times the novel calls to mind a Zurbarán painting—of beggars and peasants in rags—or some dusty scene from The Grapes of Wrath. Here, for example, is Herschel, the elder Schwart son:
Herschel was growing into a rough mean-mouth boy…. He hadn’t been a child for very long. His eyes were small and lashless and gave an unnerving impression of being on opposing sides of his face like a fish’s eyes. And his face was angular, with a bony forehead and a predator’s wide jaws. His skin was coarse, mottled, with a scattering of moles and pimples that flared into rashes when he was upset or angry, which was often. Like their father he had fleshy, wormy lips whose natural expression was disdainful. His teeth were big and chunky and discolored.
Herschel never learns to read, molests his sister, and in his redneck adolescence gets regularly arrested for drunkenness. His looks don’t improve with time. Nonetheless, despite rotten teeth and a broken nose,
he was an attractive figure to certain older divorced or separated women who appreciated what was special about Herschel Schwart. They liked his face. They liked his good-natured if explosive and unpredictable manner. His loud braying laugh, his nerved-up sinewy body that gave off heat like a horse. His ropey penis that remained a marvel even when its bearer was staggering drunk, or comatose. These were women who drew their fingertips in fascination over his skin—chest, back, sides, belly, thighs, legs—that was coarse as leather, covered in bristling hairs and dimpled with moles and pimples like shot.
Wild and unsavory as he is, Herschel grows into a mythic figure, like King MacLain in Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples. One morning before Halloween night the Schwart family awakens to discover a swastika painted in tar on their door and half the cemetery wrecked. Jacob complains to the city, but the police tell him that “boys will be boys.” The gravedigger suppresses his anger yet again, but Herschel murmurs that he knows who was responsible. So
the tale would be told through Milburn for years how, on that Hallowe’en night, the night following the vandalism in the Milburn cemetery, several young men were surprised and attacked by Herschel Schwart who acted alone….
Oates describes this night of revenge as if it were a modern-day legend of Sleepy Hollow. Herschel’s Old Testament–style retribution culminates in a savage act of branding: he takes his knife and etches a swastika into the forehead of ringleader Jeb Meunzer. After this,
it would be told how Herschel Schwart then wiped the bloody knife calmly on his victim’s trousers, rose from him and waved insolently at the stunned, staring Mrs. Meunzer and her daughter, and turned to run into the darkness. It would be said that, at a bend in the Post Road, a car or pickup truck was idling, with its headlights off; and that Herschel climbed into this vehicle and drove away, or was driven away by an accomplice, to vanish from the Chautauqua Valley forever.
Oates’s shift from straight naturalism to what one might call folk mythologizing is just one of several imaginative stylistic devices used in The Gravedigger’s Daughter. An entire chapter appears to be an account of Rebecca’s happy childhood with her cousin Freyda, but is suddenly revealed as imaginary. Scenes are interrupted, then more fully elucidated pages later. Jazz and Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata are motifs that run through the book, as does Rebecca’s pleasure in the game of Gypsy gin rummy. Some chapters are only a few sentences long. At times prophetic dreams and gnomic fragments—“You! Born here. They will not hurt you“—interrupt the main narrative. The central act of violence is returned to again and again, Rashomon-style, as Rebecca tries to grasp what actually took place.
In the middle third of the novel, the seventeen-year-old girl falls in love with a smooth-talking beer salesman and ladies’ man. By this time, she’s working as a hotel chambermaid, a step up from the grinding poverty of childhood. But Niles Tignor is another man of sudden impulses, sometimes devil-may-care, at other times aggressively cruel. Because of one of his violent fits, Rebecca suffers a miscarriage, but he dismisses it with a shrug: “The next one, you can keep.”
Eventually, Rebecca flees the increasingly brutal Tignor and the last third of The Gravedigger’s Daughter focuses on her fear that this ex-lover might discover where she and their son Niley have fled. (In places Rebecca’s anxiety—that the past may have finally caught up with her—generates a narrative tension worthy of the noir writer Cornell Woolrich.) Nonetheless, the young mother consoles herself with the dream that her boy will grow up to become a great pianist; his triumphs in the concert hall will justify her life.
Certainly Oates has prepared for this development—we learn of Niley’s musical talent from babyhood—but with it the novel verges on the sentimental, almost as if Rebecca has absorbed the redemption myths of period women’s magazines such as True Confessions and Modern Romance. That our beleaguered heroine should eventually meet a kindly jazz pianist named Chet Gallagher, who happens to be the scapegrace scion of an immensely rich family, only adds to the Hollywood fairy-tale atmosphere of the novel’s later pages. Still, the couple’s romance is beautifully described, as are several of the principal scenes: Chet playing jazz, his dying father flirting with Rebecca, Niley’s climactic performance of the Appassionata. The novel’s epilogue—which originally appeared as “The Cousins” in Oates’s short story collection High Lonesome—brings the book back to its troubled beginnings.
Despite a certain diffuseness, The Gravedigger’s Daughter sweeps the reader along because Oates possesses what Nabokov called the wand of the enchanter. She makes us worry about Rebecca. The plot can verge on the melodramatic—the bleak cemetery, the tyrannical father, the cruel townfolk, the young girl fleeing with her baby—but similar elements can be found in the great novel-tragedies of Dostoevsky and Zola. Jacob’s final confrontation with Gus, his second, more sensitive son, achieves an almost Old Testament force: “Try! Try to strike your father! You cripple-baby, you cannot.” Oates is never merely a realist; she’s also an artist of the sublime, conveying both awe and grandeur.
In the stories collected in The Museum of Dr. Moses, that power descends to the grotesque and even to Grand Guignol. Yet these “tales of mystery and suspense” also render horror in distinctly familial, even homey ways. One reads of parboiled babies wrapped in aluminum foil; twins who murder, or don’t murder, each other; a widow whose doctor-husband experiments on her skin; a young boy who turns into a wild animal; a psychopath who butchers the lonely women he attracts; and a husband who prepares a grisly surprise for the wife who is leaving him. The surreal lyricism of many of the stories only adds to their disturbing neighborliness.
By contrast, “The Man Who Fought Roland LaStarza”—the most substantial work in The Museum of Dr. Moses—affectionately portrays a lost world. In it, a grown woman remembers her childhood, and her fascination with a boxer named Colum Donaghy, a friend of her father’s (and perhaps something more). Oates captures the blue-collar life of Golden Gloves and small-town boxing, of “men you couldn’t hope to know intimately, unless you already knew them; their friendships were forged in boyhood.” Just as The Gravedigger’s Daughter is, in part, a portrait of Oates’s grandmother (its dedication tells us so), much of this excellent story must be culled from Oates’s memories of the boxing matches she cheered at with her own father.
Naturally, there’s a twist in the tale, one that solves a mystery, but what remains in the mind is Oates’s depiction of
the life of normal, average men, men who worked at daily jobs, in garages, in lumberyards, driving trucks, taking orders from others, trying to make money like you’d try to suck moisture out of some enormous unnameable thing, pressing sucker-lips against it, filled with revulsion for what you did, what you must do, if you wanted to survive.
As these stories of mystery and horror remind us, Joyce Carol Oates is as much a “genre author” as she is a major American novelist. One might even say that she has come to look upon all literature as the genre she works in so inventively, adapting classic themes, paying homage to old masters, writing in various styles and forms—while somehow remaining true to her own intense imagination. In her journal Oates sets down some lines by the poet Stanley Kunitz that seem to summarize her own dark vision of human life: “We learn, as the thread plays out, that we belong/Less to what flatters us than to what scars.”
December 20, 2007