With Childwold, Joyce Carol Oates’s eighth novel and seventeenth fictional work in fourteen years, the reader is brought back to familiar country—the dilapidated farmhouses, rotting towns, and powerful natural forces and human passions of the author’s mythical Eden Valley. This land, introduced with the stories of By the North Gate (1963) and Upon the Sweeping Flood (1966) and continued at intervals in such novels as Wonderland (1971) and others, has served and continues to serve as a stark backdrop against which wrenching and bloody emotional and physical conflicts are played out by some of the most real characters in contemporary fiction. Like Faulkner’s settings, parts of Eden County are often depicted in encyclopedic naturalistic detail, paradoxically both creating a brutally objective realism and also communicating a rather intense, often gothic sense of mystery and horror. Oates’s atmospheres are felt long after her books’ covers are closed, often as a whirling of the brain or an intense itching on the insides of one’s eyes. But unlike the Compsons, Snopeses, McCaslins, and other inhabitants of Yoknapatawpha County, the beings populating Oates’s country die off quite quickly, their family names existing for only a few moments in time and then passing away as the Eden River continues to flow.
But if their names do not reappear in Oates’s fiction, their essences are repeated, and so are their fates. Here in Childwold, a vicious depiction of life played out in extremes, the reader confronts some composite Oatesian types: the child/woman, one who is just awakening to physical and emotional maturity as she is asked to take on horrifying adult responsibilities; the woman/child, one who retreats from responsibilities to infantile behavior and passivity to maintain her survival; the distracted and depressed intellectual, resurrected from his own isolation and instinctual sterility only to die or to be driven mad by forces within him that he does not understand; the old people, isolated men and women marked by rotting bodies and a great sense of what has been lost; and the young, from babies to eighteen-year-olds, all, like their parents, seemingly doomed to lives of incredible violence, hardship, and emotional distress. Oates’s stories are usually sad ones, brutal tales of senseless bloodletting or emotional or psychological injuries that send her characters to their graves or to asylums or back to kitchen tables where they can take the measure of the horror inside their coffee cups and contemplate the terrors rising up from their grimy linoleum floors. The Oates world is stark, offering little hope for salvation or escape to its populace. Even the most optimistic evaluation of it—yes, the characters’ lives are difficult, troubled, but the current and promises of life go on mysteriously—disintegrates when one realizes that the current is too strong, the waters too turbulent and crushing to offer much more than brute survival to the few who can cope with it.
In Childwold we have a clear distillation and refinement of many of the attributes of the author’s previous fiction. The raw creative energy of them and A Garden of Earthly Delights is intensified here, creating a compelling vision that seems no longer fictional. Its characters are intensely alive, so real that they seem oftentimes to the reader like nextdoor neighbors or figures from personal memories. The torrent of concrete words remains flowing; all elements from the shingles on grey houses to sweating Stroh’s beer bottles keep swirling by, building up a composite image that is as palpable and mute as a freshly tarred highway or a paint-cracked park bench or a deserted Main Street at three A.M. But if the novel has these virtues, it also has familiar faults—a certain looseness of artistic control over some of the characters’ words and the overall pacing of the action, a seeming immaturity of technique, a vagueness of motive and action that hints at careless craftsmanship. While some of these slips cannot be denied, others can be explained away.
In some advice given in 1966 to fiction writers, Oates justified her own apparent disinterest in the preciousness of literary craftsmanship:I think the stress placed today on technique is misleading. . . . It isn’t “words” or “style” that makes a scene, but the content behind the words, and the increase of tension as characters come into contact with one another. “Words” themselves are relatively unimportant, since there are countless ways of saying the same thing. . . . Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.
Oates’s lack of interest in style, in refined technique, is reflected...
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