Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 6)
Oates, Joyce Carol 1938–
An American novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, and playwright now living in Canada, Ms Oates has achieved an almost neutral style, writing with controlled despair of love and losses, deaths and dyings of various sorts. In her latest critical work, New Heaven, New Earth, she contemplates the visionary writer's conflict with the metaphysical and the real. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
In the mood of our times [Joyce Carol Oates] is investigative. But she, like many good writers and many good periods in culture, goes back in order to go beyond. How is this? Well, for instance, she is able, when she wants to, to use recognizable plot strongly. Read "Demons" and see how plot can go from point to point in no orthodox way, but hold to the orthodox, constant factor…. And suspense—suspense that is managed in Miss Oates's own way, her own brand of psychological insinuation. How she does swing a story along!…
How strongly Miss Oates has hold of her themes!—which are, obsessively: love cresting and dying, old age, death from decay, death without cancelling existence, and death from an excess of life. What else is there to be obsessed with? When and if these properties of existence have been smothered by the grace of science, she will be there to deal with whatever else there is, beautifully.
Her words are more totally one with her meaning and whatever nuance she wishes to extend from her meaning than those of any other contemporary writer I have read. (pp. 236-37)
John Hazard Wildman, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. 1X, No. 1, Winter, 1973.
Important writers have worked in more than one genre, even in different media, before and the exclusiveness of any genre is fictitious, anyway. Yet a book of poems is still under the onus of being judged as poetry, whatever affinities the verse might have with other modes. And it is here that Miss Oates runs the risk of the most severe judgment.
Anonymous Sins and Other Poems revealed talents that were lyrical, as much as they were dramatic and narrative. The title indicated both a confessional fascination and the wish to move toward more public, anonymous voices. Considerations of marriage, love, the dark, and the foetal state always built toward some vision of a loveless America. What I found dangerous in the book was a habit of settling for endings which were too easy, and for a language which was too abstract and clichéd. The best poems in the book—"Unborn Child," "The Dark," "Foetal Song," "Anonymous Sins," "Like This … So This," "Vanity," "Marriage"—were at once formal and felt. The less successful poems, on the other hand, were unconvincing in their geometric dreams and fantasies of skin, blood, and bone.
In Love and Its Derangements, Joyce Carol Oates is still in search of a language for the poems she wishes to write. None of the problems I experienced with the first book are ever dispersed. And this new book raises some problems of its own.
If Miss Oates wishes to move poetry toward something that is more readable and available, terrible costs to the language are involved. And her best poems here often seem at odds with themselves—written in part out of very real lyrical gifts, and in part out of a neglect of what words can finally bear…. [She] is too ready to give in to worn images and phrases which neither the incantation nor the movement toward universality adequately allows. Poems like "How We Are Flowers," "'Woman Is the Death of the Soul,'" "Duet," "You/Your," "Love and Its Derangements," "What I Fear…," Landscapes, and "How Gentle" show the same confused combinations of moving, well-written moments and bad lines.
Poetry has to be more than a collection of good and bad lines, and in the case of Joyce Carol Oates, larger things are at stake. Again, Miss Oates has not settled on what kind of poem she wishes to make into her own. Confessional verse? (The book's title promises less abstraction, it would seem.) A more formal, purer lyric? Words for music, perhaps?
That there is "a landscape of love" in these poems I never doubt. But it is commonly obscured or hidden by what is less immediate and vague. [I hope that] Miss Oates can find a loving language at once private and public…. As woman, as poet, and as woman poet, the real poems await her still. (pp. 252-54)
Arthur Oberg, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. 1X, No. 1, Winter, 1973.
I do not want to begin on an unkind note, but I do think that somebody ought to advise Joyce Carol Oates to stop writing for a while and seriously to consider what she has been doing. She is thirty-five years old, and she has been a professional writer for scarcely more than a decade, but in that time she has written, according to her publisher's count, six novels, four volumes of short stories, three collections of poetry, a book of critical essays, four plays, over one hundred reviews, and an ever-increasing list of vagrant and miscellaneous pieces. Wherever one looks these days, in magazines large or small, obscure or prestigious, he is likely to find something by Joyce Carol Oates—if not on the next page, then in the next issue.
Of course, being prolific is not in itself a bad thing. We can all think of writers who we wish had given us more, and we have the examples of Balzac and James and, in his golden period, Faulkner. But Miss Oates is offering us the same thing over and over again, and in charity to her readers, if not to herself, she ought to stop it. The characters in Do With Me What You Will are Elena and Ardis and Leo Ross and Marvin Howe and Jack Morrisey, and this time the leading men are lawyers. But we have seen them all before, as doctors in Wonderland or as proletarian figures in them or as migrant workers and rich suburbanites in A Garden of Earthly Delights and Expensive People. Indeed Miss Oates has achieved such a sameness in her work that I find myself pressed not to say now what I have said previously about her strengths and weaknesses.
Elena, who is the heroine of the present book, is a typical Oates character. Beautiful, passive, not remarkably lucky, she has entered a plea of nolo contendere to life, and for almost six hundred pages we follow her through the inevitable Oatesian vicissitudes of marriage, infidelity, sickness, and uncertainty. Like most of Joyce Carol Oates's personae she is a borderline psychotic, and it is to Miss Oates's insistence on using this kind of character that I want principally to address myself. But first let me pay proper homage to the things she does well. Her eye for the scenery of the modern world never forsakes her; she is sometimes extravagant, even profligate, in her use of physical detail, but she creates with great vividness the dirt of the streets and the desolation of slums, Grosse Pointe and the Detroit Athletic Club and the house of a black preacher in Mississippi. Out of these authentic backgrounds we get a sense of life at its various levels. Miss Oates knows the accents of all the people she writes about, the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the charities they finance or from which they draw their sustenance. She is at her best when she is writing dialogue, for she comprehends most of the uses to which language can be put: the viciousness of parents, the infidelity of lovers, the greed of the powerful are made apparent in the lines they speak. Yet, in spite of her great technical proficiency, each of her novels seems a little less exciting, a little more repetitive than the one before.
The point about Elena is her extraordinary, her almost deathlike passivity…. [Whatever] happens until almost the very end, nothing is going to touch Elena: kindness and cruelty are the same to her; no word or deed of whatever kind can penetrate the cool vacuum of her center…. One is tempted, rather, to conclude that the book is simply a celebration of negation, but this, too, I think would be wrong. Miss Oates is as gloomy as the rest of us about the state of the modern world, and she is after something.
I do not want to see Elena as a symbol—Miss Oates deserves better from her critics than that—but she and the life she endures and the characters which surround her are images of modern man's weariness and futility…. Because literature is a moral art which poses for the people it portrays choices that are morally significant, the actions of a madman, good or bad, can have little meaning. One might be tempted to call Miss Oates's heavy use of psychotic characters a kind of evasion, but I think it more likely that she is trying to tell us what she sees. In book after book she has been giving us a view of ourselves at our worst; a chronicle of our civilization in its last sad twilight. But in my judgment, a single obituary would have been enough. Even one as enormously talented as Miss Oates ought not to write the same book repeatedly. (pp. 138-40)
Walter Sullivan, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Winter, 1974.
Joyce Carol Oates crushes a genuine talent under the dead weight of American middlebrow fiction conventions. (p. 56)
Ronald Blythe, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Ronald Blythe), January 10, 1974.
Do With Me What You Will is, as the title suggests, a modern romance; but it is a romance by default. Elena Ross is, in the best tradition of these things, more sinned against than sinning and the novel centres around her awkward attempts to live in a world in which she is object and portrait rather than woman….
There is a hint of coyness in the weaving and interweaving of plot and sub-plot, but the complete novel rises above all that fiddle. I don't want to murder the theme with synopsis, and I will only mention at this point the liaison between Jack and Elena, the awful presence of Jack's wife who is the conventional bleeding-vein liberal, the slow decay of the villains into loneliness and mania as they go into the dark, and the eventual happy ending for the heroes which I will not, of course, reveal.
This may seem the stuff from which cardboard is made, but reading is believing. Miss Oates has a powerful lyricism which has been yoked with a strong attention to detail. Her perceptions are fastidious in the extreme, even with soppy girl's stuff about love….
Miss Oates has a neutral style, rather like the bland centrality of life itself. It can become too easy or over-lyrical, but it can also be sharp and to the point. It is not every romantic novel that can include a couple of unpleasant killings, and can use such facts as the 690 deaths in Detroit, 1971, without blushing. Do With Me What You Will conveys by indirection the volume of a whole society. It has taken the themes and characters of pulp-romance to a fine art, and has turned them into a new thing. At least we should be grateful for that. (p. 75)
Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), January 19, 1974.
Joyce Carol Oates … doesn't believe in merely indicating anything. She likes to spell it out, sometimes several times, in case we missed the point the first time. Do With Me What You Will … is not one of her best. Her method seems to be to look through a newspaper and play Consequences with the headlines: domestic horrors merge into public ones, student riots (them), or the Kennedy assassination (Wonderland) or in this book, less dramatically, the situation in Detroit, 'murder capital of the nation'….
Too many of [her] characters remain lifeless, and the fault is only exacerbated by the piling on of detail. Where the author is at her best is in a sort of emotionally charged reportage of public events, the more dramatic and appalling the better. (pp. 121-22)
Isabel Colegate, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & National Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 25, 1974.
It's as close to a rule as anything you'll find: the writer who's really obsessed by [the] complex mingling of the individual within the universal—by the sheer visceral urge to relate it all together, and make it mean: that's the writer who's really going to get to you. (An example is the new Nobel Prize winner, Australian novelist Patrick White. Not by any standard a graceful writer; but a raw powerful creative appetite, a novelist who's determined to do it all.)
Joyce Carol Oates is such a force: a pleasantly frail-seeming woman whom we suspect of undercurrent reserves of gargantuan energies. (If she ever wakes up aching all over, it must be because rival writers are sticking pins into little waxen images of her.) Nobody else writes nearly as much as she does. The really alarming thing is that so much of what she writes is good. Do With Me What You Will follows logically from her earlier fiction's obsession with violent dislocations seamed into the fabric of American society. We are a country of intensely destructive (and self-destructive) people, she seems to keep saying. What is there in us—and outside us—that makes us act as we do?
Oates's heroine here, Elena Carter, is an emotionless "little doll," brought up by her abrasive mother to project an image of bland angelic unconcern. Oates lavishes rich extremes of violence on Elena, but makes sure to leave her dulled, uninvolved. She has an untouchable inner life, but it is ruffled by just-awareness that she is a half-human vacuum…. Oates labors awfully hard to establish that Elena lives cramped up in mindless self-involvement. The novel doesn't really work, finally, because its contrasts are too extreme. But it couldn't progress at all without the contrasts, which are part of the vision. Like all the Oates novels, it opens violently—as Elena is abducted by her (divorced) father, who neglects her into near-starvation. He's a resentful victim of "the Law"—and orates incessantly on its inequitable paradoxes: how Law rises out of antagonisms, is itself a source of conflict, rather than healing. And this time, the violence becomes subordinated to the dialectic—because Oates's theme is the tension between "the Law" and "Romantic love."… The violence in us is viewed here as a cultural (perhaps religious) dysfunction, with roots deep down. Oates's narrative strives to show us how the tension takes hold everywhere in our lives. (pp. 122-24)
There is just about everything in this novel, and much of it is awful…. There are some pretty limp swipes at satire…. What is real in the novel is the feeling that its characters, underneath their pretended attachments, really don't know who they are; that "This country is destroying people…. It's driving them crazy so that they destroy themselves."
Oates has a conclusion arranged: Elena sheds her fear that "All motion, all movement, was a kind of hell" and opts for involvement in the mess of living, even if the mere fate of being humans makes us criminals, because we're doomed to persist on in unresolved conflicts. The choice may not convince, because we've been prepared to accept that Elena is immobilized against choosing. But the harsh, menacing, reverberating world outside Elena Howe is a powerful enough reality, even if Oates cannot assimilate it within her design.
Of all the "serious" novels published recently, this may be the easiest one to make fun of. But it won't go away. And, it won't do to dismiss its author as a mad barbarian who can't put her house of fiction in order. She is one of those who know what life in this country and this century is like, and I believe she is, already, secure among our important writers. (p. 124)
Bruce Allen, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1974.
Joyce Carol Oates's Do With Me What You Will explores the human need for commitment to something or, more accurately in this case, to someone…. The theme of the novel—Elena's need to be transformed from object to person—is timely. She desperately needs love, but the men are pushy…. Men are defined, Miss Oates seems to feel, by the need to push. Women, God bless 'em, just have to look lovely and, when they learn to love, become persons. Those who don't learn either harden, like Elena's mother, or lose, like Jack's wife.
For some reason, it does not come off. Too much material is left unassimilated; we're told more than we need or want to know about the men in the novel; very long sections work only one-dimensionally rather than in the multidimensional ways we expect of the best fiction; the intellectually important ideas the characters discuss are relevant to the background of Do With Me What You Will rather than to its foreground. All in all, it shows signs of having been hastily written. (pp. 77-8)
Lee T. Lemon, in Prairie Schooner (© 1974 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Spring, 1974.
By the North Gate [was] Miss Oates's first collection of stories…. For the most part describing the spare life of hill people in Eden County, the stories successfully tie their characters to the primitive, often inexplicable, rhythms of the land. Taking her cue from Eliot, who wrote in "The Hollow Men" that the shadow fell between the idea and the act, Miss Oates depicts the mysterious shadows that change lives. Men's best laid plans go astray for reasons which neither they nor the reader quite understand. Heightening readers' feelings in order to deepen an awareness of the mystery of human life, the stories successfully appeal to the sympathetic imagination. In "Why Distant Objects Please," William Hazlitt, the romantic theorist, explained the concept, writing: "Whatever is placed beyond the reach of sense and knowledge, whatever is imperfectly discerned, the fancy pieces out at its leisure." In other words a viewer is forced to complete his vision by using his imagination creatively. Similarly, Miss Oates obscures events in her stories in order to force the reader to become an imaginative participant in the narrative. The danger inherent in this technique is obvious. Concrete events become so hazy that instead of being creatively involved in the tale, the reader loses the narrative thread. In By the North Gate, however, unlike Miss Oates's later collections, the appeal to the sympathetic imagination rarely undermines the narrative and as a result contributes to the stories' power. A sense of mystery enhances "Swamps," "By the North Gate," and the superb "Census Taker," for example; whereas in "Spiral," "Plot," and "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For" (found in Marriages and Infidelities, 1972) the narrative line is so tenuous and the shadow so emphasized that the stories break up on the granite rock of obscurity.
In contrast to her later tales, in which the spaces between people become bigger, By the North Gate conveys not only a sense of community but also the positive values conveyed by communal living. Illustrating that a community rests on both need and duty, "Ceremonies" criticizes the self-sufficient and consequently isolated man. In "Swamps," although he is destroyed, the grandfather's personal [benevolence] is a creative force. On the other hand the violence of the drifters in "Boys at a Picnic" seems to stem in part from their lack of belonging. In her later stories, though, Miss Oates draws her villains in more heightened colors, cutting melodramatic cartoon characters from the cloth of corrupt Byronic heroes. Out of step with the conventions of all societies, these characters exist in a state of preternatural tension which they resolve only through action. Unlike the true romantic, a Childe Harold, who resolved the tension produced through his conflict with society into art, Miss Oates's characters strike out blindly and bloodily. In "The Man That Turned into a Statue" (Upon the Sweeping Flood, 1966), the hero, a piece of flotsam forever brushing violently against society, asserts his individuality and Clockwork Orange creativity by killing three people.
In Miss Oates's later volumes, the positive aspects of community disappear. More often than not suburbia takes its place. With the natural man smothered and creativity frustrated, Miss Oates's suburbanites live lives of quiet vulgarity, punctuated only by demons descending from without or rising from suppressed psychological urges within. As a result the stories flow smoothly from breakdowns and rapes to suicides and murders. Plucking a different but just as hackneyed a chord as Horatio Alger, these tales provide no surprises. Their conventions resemble those of the gothic novel with neuroses replacing skeletons in closets and the moan of sexual ecstasy drowning out the heroine's last sigh as she falls faintingly and innocently to the castle floor.
Except for the fine story from which the volume takes its name, Eden County plays a much smaller part in Upon the Sweeping Flood than it did in By the North Gate. More important in this collection are the subjects which dominate Miss Oates's later volumes: academic life, childhood, death, and Catholicism. The pictures of academic life are the stuff from which Miss Oates's weakest tales are made. There are no sentimental Mr. Chipses, no hilarious Lucky Jims, and no absurd or brilliant "Peacocky" conversations. Instead, echoing the weaknesses of Zola's "Experimental Novel," under the guise of realism, we are given dreary people with dull vices wandering in psychological mazes. Certainly such people exist, but they constitute only a part, not the whole, of any world, academic or otherwise. Moreover stories which rely on excessive detail ("The Expense of Spirit" and "Archways") in order to convey realism, yet are filled with unrepresentative characters are paradoxically unrealistic. (pp. 219-21)
Aware of its power, Faulkner used Ecclesiastes to add depth and meaning to As I Lay Dying. In The Dubliners, Joyce not only made readers aware of the corruptions of religion but also the richness that it adds, has added, and will add to the citizens of Dublin. Miss Oates, on the other hand, seems content merely to describe the abuses of religion. Consequently her stories about Catholicism are often one-dimensional and do not strike chords that roll from soul to soul and force readers to put her stories in a larger perspective. (p. 222)
"Dying" is a ponderously serious tale about a man's slow death and is the ancestor of "Loving, Losing, Loving a Man." Here again, devoid of humor, Miss Oates's world is unnaturally narrow. In Look Homeward Angel Thomas Wolfe showed us that serious depictions of death need not be solemn. In Pickwick Papers Jingles' anecdote of the coach passenger whose head was knocked off by a low bridge while she ate a ham sandwich taught us that death need not be the slightest bit serious. An inability to laugh is Miss Oates's greatest limitation. Certainly her world should not be that of the Drones Club and Bertie Wooster, but the merest touch of Galahad Threepwood or the Empress of Blandings would make me, at least, take her seriousness more seriously. With broader views some of our young writers … create worlds in which man is capable of acting not only pathetically, but also humorously and tragically. (pp. 222-23)
In Joyce Carol Oates's later stories, the Keats-like quest for a life of sensations, in opposition to a humdrum existence in suburbia, controls the psyches of the main characters. After granting that Miss Oates's last two volumes (The Wheel of Love and Marriages and Infidelities) are in some way about love, or at least intimate relationships, "hips jammed together in languid violence" still dominate the stories to an inordinate degree. Moreover there are no simple tumbles in the hay. Copulating becomes a terribly serious act, fraught with all sorts of psychological bugbears…. All this is not to say, though, that these volumes contain only poor stories. On the contrary, many are well-written and provocative. In particular "Shame" describing a priest's rejection of life after a confrontation with sordid fertility and "Problem of Adjustment of Survivors in Natural/Unnatural Disasters" showing the effects of mental and physical earthquakes on a small boy are first-rate. Others including "The Happy Onion" about a young girl's love for a rock idol and "Bodies" about, I think, the reality of life and the artifice of art, are not far behind.
In spite of these successes, there remains a heaviness and single-mindedness about the stories in the volumes. (pp. 223-24)
Over the past decade the world of Joyce Carol Oates's stories has shifted from a comparatively objective, albeit oftentimes mysterious, reality to a subjective reality and a heavy emphasis on psychology. Over half the stories in Marriages and Infidelities are in some way about mentally disturbed people, or at least people whose way of seeing life is not "normal."… In trying to render the peculiar worlds of these characters, the stories lean heavily on stream of consciousness technique and processes of association which are almost unfathomable. Moreover as the characters fall further into subjectivism, and deny the reality of external reality, their worlds narrow until they are left with the final reality: the body. As a result sexual activity becomes important as a proof of their existence. In "Bodies" an impoverished artist cum rejected lover, slashes his throat so that his blood spurts on a beautiful woman…. This denial of all reality except for the body is, of course, but a half-way house. The next step is the denial of the body, and in "29 Inventions" this occurs. (p. 225)
Taking a long-range, and therefore somewhat distorted, view of Miss Oates's short stories, it looks as if she may have written herself into a corner. Her world and its range of characters have never been broad. Moreover when all reality becomes subjective, the body, then sentence structures, finally words themselves, become too subjective to convey meaning to a wide audience. Once then the story becomes inexpressible in conventional terms, the literary alternative is to experiment with the form of the genre. This, however, is chancy; and for every successful Sterne, there are countless failures. Although exciting perhaps to the cognoscenti, Miss Oates's experiments with form in Marriages and Infidelities, "Nightmusic" and "Plots" in particular, are not successful. (pp. 225-26)
Samuel F. Pickering, Jr., "The Short Stories of Joyce Carol Oates," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1974, by the University of Georgia), Summer, 1974, pp. 218-26.
Miss Oates, in my opinion, intends mainly to satisfy her readers' esthetic appetite…. [She has disclaimed] creating or "making up" stories. She says, rather, that they occur to her as if in daydreams and she struggles to remember and record them. Some of her short stories have been notable experiments in form, and when she appears as a character in them Miss Oates teaches her English class that literature gives form to life. From the rest of the novel we may conclude that it does not change life at all. The few moral judgments that are expressed in the narrative are introduced unemphatically by or for the sake of the characters.
Yet to the extent that Miss Oates' world coincides with our own she has "kept a grip on our experience," and some readers saw in them a clinically objective case history in social psychology, a chronicle of existence in the Detroit slums worthy of Dickens. It is difficult, however, to accept this evaluation because the most salient quality of her writing is a moody determinism. (p. 209)
Charles I. Terbille, in The Michigan Quarterly Review (copyright © The University of Michigan, 1974), Summer, 1974.
Joyce Carol Oates has written strong novels, but she is best in the short story. Her most characteristic stories read like dreams or nightmares, urgently written in order to release the dreamer. She writes, as she has said, compulsively; and the failure of the poor or partially achieved stories seems the result of haste. But when her stories work, when all the elements come together, the same compulsiveness is present. The perfection seems accidental, even when the stories are structured in labyrinths.
The stories in The Hungry Ghosts … lack the immediacy of Oates' major work. They don't grip us as visions, but some of them are extremely funny, which is surprising, since the awesomely serious Oates hasn't been deliberately funny since Expensive People in 1968. These "seven allusive comedies," with titles like "Democracy in America" and "The Birth of Tragedy," are set on and around university campuses. Oates intends them to be satiric, and most of them succeed as satire.
Oates, who in one area of her life is a full-time professor, has written academic stories before; and she can distance them as she can't others. They've always been a world apart from her stories about tabloid sensationalism and sexual obsession. In the typical Oates story wealthy girls go klepto and nympho for their drug addict lovers, or housewives bring their guilty adulteries to peaks of apocalyptic violence. This is the stuff of pulp, but the best Oates is pulp transformed into a unique American vision. Oates' endless expensive cars, lipstick tubes and nervously clutched purses become Kafkaesque emblems of horror. She can be shattering like no other writer—an American primitive.
Oates doesn't charge her academic stories as she does her pulpy visions; but The Hungry Ghosts crackles with tension and wit, and its subjects—the foibles of academia and the literati—are tantalizing. (p. 30)
The caricatures are venomous but not offensive. Caricature seems natural in a campus setting because academics often see each other as caricatures and can spend hours creating verbal cartoons out of their colleagues' idiosyncrasies. The secret of this story's success is that Oates knows how hilarious professional bitchiness can be. (pp. 30-1)
The Hungry Ghosts must have been restful to write and much easier to take than the fictive outbursts of the more familiar Oates, that tawdry Cassandra. (p. 31)
John Alfred Avant, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), August 31, 1974.
Joyce Carol Oates has managed to be in this age of aggression without seeming to be of it. Her interviews radiate reserve, delicacy, politeness…. Yet … Oates has written novel after novel of cruelty as the one overpowering lust. In "them," her brilliantly dense masterpiece on the Detroit riot, she orchestrated burnings, shootings and lootings into a chorale of American losers whose rage is purifying, ennobling, whose violence has the harmony of fate.
In ["The Hungry Ghosts"], she is frankly murderous. The anger which might have been justified in her earlier books by her characters' poverty or traumatic childhoods is now clearly her own. "The Hungry Ghosts" is a series of slashing satires on writers, critics, reviewers, poets and academics whom she sees as utterly without nobility, grace or pitch. Oates's vendetta is wonderfully mean on the malice of writers….
Oates … believes that the medium is the message, that words, art, scholarship are the signs of failed vitality, mere weapons in the war for self-advancement, tools for cloaking one's own unfaceable failures in a showy reputation. Intellectual arrogance, envy and spite between writers, critics and poets have been killed in print before. But as the faults rise like a daily phoenix, so Oates has risen to kill them again with relentless cleverness.
Intelligence is a form of malice in story after story; insight is limited to the knife thrust. Oates's villains know only one truth: life is an affair between the moth and the flame. Her insect-victims discover that even they cannot resist the heat and light of their own malice….
Satirists at their best are accomplished pornographers, seducing the reader into deliciously hateful vices. But the satire and self-satire in these stories is sour, personal, grim as Oates's vision that life divides between constriction and destruction, between sexual death and sexual violence. No one in these stories really believes in what he says or does, but no one can make a move without getting worse. For Oates's literati there is no exit from the typewriter but actual war, no safe solution to numbing, mind-ridden days. These stories are small situations of malice that so level every impulse toward escape, nobility, generosity or life that they exemplify the faults they claim to expose. What they invariably expose is Joyce Carol Oates's raw spleen. (p. 5)
Josephine Hendin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 1, 1974.
In spite of an enormous increase in the subjects the creative writer can deal with since Freud opened the gates of psychological inquiry, [the] realm [of the "dark mysteries within us"] has been dealt with mostly by implication and metaphor. Writers like Conrad, James and Virginia Woolf began to raise its curtains, but succeeding generations of writers, clambering over them in radiant common sense, have seldom taken their lead. The Women's Liberation Movement … has rooted about in the thickets of male bloodlust, but it has had little to say about women's deepest impulses. It has been left to Joyce Carol Oates, a writer who seems to know a great deal about the underside of America, to guide us—splendidly—down the dark passages and returns to tell us what we have known but never wanted to admit: women also have dark hearts. (p. 7)
Year after year Oates has been extending her range, getting closer to the heart of her fictional women's derangement. In order to do so, she has played almost outrageously with forms and conventions. Her style is transparently ordinary, her characters' lives are usually banal, she refuses to glamorize, and she makes reality work for her by selecting details other American writers reject as tedious and unromantic. She overemphasizes to make points, but does not dramatize. Without traditionally "fine" writing—her field is fine perception—she uncovers the underside of a Puritanism that forgot to tell us what to do with Kali [Hindu goddess of death and destruction]. (p. 10)
Marian Engel, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 24, 1974.
Joyce Carol Oates's special achievement is her ability to reduce contemporary American social reality to liberating fictions. Her resources are courage and a knowledge of self and the literary past. Open and receptive to what is, Oates sees the present as a variation of what has already been, and by reducing "now" to familiar fictions, she tames, civilizes and, through the catharsis provided by her art, educates.
Oates believes strongly in the authority of the individual's experience of reality. Not one to confuse behavior, or what one does, with identity, or who one is, she defines experience as a process in which external reality impinges significantly not only upon the conscious life of the individual but upon the unconscious as well. Life is a series of encounters, each of which has the potential to make the unconscious more accessible. The truly human life requires continual growth, which in turn depends upon the individual's ability to integrate a new experience into the total personality. (More often than not, however, in an effort to maintain equilibrium, one simply denies or resists the healthful disintegrating effects of new experiences, and such reactions lead either to stagnation or to "madness.") Each state of integrity, albeit temporary, reveals more, but one can never fully understand the self, for the learning process is unending.
Oates's fictions, products of her own descent into the abyss, are designed, like all generous art, to humanize and make whole. Although Oates has been regarded with suspicion because of the violence of her subject matter, the writer is psychologically healthy, and her art remarkably sane. She informs and makes meaningful the facts that assault us daily in the newspapers. For example, them (1969), a naturalistic novel of life in a Detroit slum, shocks only because it is perceived as fiction, and this, of course, is its value. This constitutes its ability to liberate. As a news story or case history, it would be absorbed easily enough by sensibilities inured to misery, and catharsis would be impossible.
The fearless commitment to go wherever she must go emotionally, demonstrated in them, characterizes all of her half-dozen novels and seventy or more short stories….
Having absorbed the shaping myths of the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions, of Western literature and of the American experience, Oates both resurrects and domesticates them in her fiction, providing a link between the past and present, between the collective unconscious and modern life. Putting us in touch with the collective unconscious, she reveals the primitive meaning and, therefore, the humanity of contemporary life, for the vital source of all action is the unconscious life of the race itself. But she is not simply writing "clever art," that is, "art based upon cultural knowledge of earlier art." Her art is "deadly serious and wants to absolutely re-create and reinterpret the world." Her notion of bringing back to life is closely allied with the artist's special mission of bringing to life. At the end of the tradition, she is creating a new beginning, which is very intimately related to her consciousness as a woman and as an artist. (p. 597)
Elena, the central character of Do With Me What You Will, unlike so many fictional women whose quest for selfhood ends in suicide, madness or marriage, breaks through to a higher level of awareness and, newly integrated, affirms not only what she wants but also how she will get it. Her newfound freedom and its direction are of course historically conditioned, a solution that does not make the novel popular with more radical feminists. Oates, however, is neither an idealist nor an ideologist, yet it is not surprising that having chosen to make liberation her subject, she sought to dramatize it in a woman. Women are at the present time more interesting to her than men. She believes that "men have a far more difficult time … existing, trying to measure up to the absurd standards of 'masculinity' in our culture and in nature," and that women are more likely consciously to feel the need for self-emancipation. Less locked into roles, women are more open to the energies of the unconscious and, therefore, the prehistoric sources of identity are more accessible to them than to men. This view of women, however, has always been a strong structuring tenet in Oates's work—this and the very real historical obstacles that limit women in time. One can see Oates discovering the subject as one goes through her work. Thus, Elena represents the logical culmination of an artistic interest in the lives and consciousness of women that Oates has been exploring with increasing concentration in her fiction for more than a decade. (pp. 597-98)
Oates's women have never been any less free than her male characters; all have inhabited a world that they are powerless to change. However, in Do With Me What You Will which, incidentally, synthesizes Oates's theory of art, her method, and her interest in women, she sees a way out, not through the law or any other of our present institutions but through awakened human consciousness. Where but in a character forced by experience to journey into the self in order to find both authenticity and authority would this new consciousness appear? Oates suggests that it would be born of woman. Do With Me What You Will is—to use terms with which Oates herself is so comfortable—a myth of creation; it is about the divinity in women. Galvanized by an orgiastic experience, which puts her, mystically, in direct contact with an ultimate reality, the source of her energy, Elena, the Queen of Sleep, awakens, harnesses the animal energy of the universe, and discovers the courage to "clear a passageway through the world" for herself. Like the symbolic act of Adam and Eve in the Christian myth, this too is a criminal act, an act of self-assertion which shatters the old paternalistic structures. Mysticism, however, has always been regarded with suspicion, and it is Oates's prophecy that salvation or liberation will not be possible in our time for anyone until her image of woman becomes both paradigm and prologue of a new heresy. (pp. 598-99)
Constance Ayers Denne, "Joyce Carol Oates's Women," in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), December 7, 1974, pp. 597-99.
I looked forward to another big book of Oates stories, but The Goddess and Other Women is Oates at her worst. Of the 25 stories, three are acceptable. The best, "Magna Mater,"…moves with a sense of life being lived at the bone. It displays a master storyteller effortlessly compressing a situation into one exciting story that has enough abrasive interplay to fill out a novel, rearranging time sequences for small juxtapositions that produce the precise effects desired. But at its root "Magna Mater" is an unsatisfying sermon on the corruption of the young by a neurotic adult world, a superior reworking of Evan Hunter's Last Summer and Charles Webb's The Graduate. Oates brings her superior technique to unworthy material.
Elsewhere in The Goddess the techniques are stale. In her very busy writing career, Oates has never consciously developed a prose style; her best stories read as though they had written themselves in fierce bursts of energy. All the stories here are in familiar Oates modes, but the essential Oates electricity is missing. The words are dead on the page; and since the subjects—child molestings, auto accidents, adulterous wives, reveries of remembered rape, anxious anticipations of rape—are all too familiar, there's no artistic growth to witness and little impetus to finish the book.
The charge is often made that Oates writes too quickly and too much; but the same working habits that produced The Goddess also produced her last two big collections, which contain, along with some tripe, some of the best stories in the language. Oates can't work in any other way. We have to take the mediocre with the good, the bad with the great.
John Alfred Avant, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 29, 1975, pp. 30-1.
After some twenty or so volumes of fiction it should be clear that whatever its degree of success [Oates's] fairly straightforward narrative form and unobtrusive prose style are deliberately chosen for their appropriateness in dealing with those long uncomfortable looks at nihilism and affirmation which are at the center of her work. Her subject matter, which is now as much as ever that of consciousness in a state of risk, benefits from being grounded in fairly straight narration and realistic detail. The sock under the bed and inevitable violent denouement work their fearful effects best in a form that calls as little attention to itself as possible.
In any case, the art of Joyce Carol Oates has its special mission, and to say that there should be less of it or that it should be crafted differently is as futile as wishing she would try out a comic mode. In her afterword to "The Poisoned Kiss" she remarks that fiction ought to sanctify the real world "by honoring its complexities." This is the mission of her work…. "The Seduction & Other Stories" contains some of her best revelations of complexity in lives ordinarily thought to be without depth or value.
As usual her most successful characters are drawn from that segment of the American population which Norman Mailer so magnanimously labeled "The Wad." They are hairdressers, assembly-line workers, gum-cracking teenagers…. They are inarticulate yet highly complex. It is the task of the fiction to create enough of an opening in the texture of these lives to allow a glimpse of their mystery and complexity. The revelation on which each story turns rescues the existence within it from the appearance of meaninglessness by a flash of something real and permanent.
As often as not the mystical moment is managed by means of violence, sometimes by art, and occasionally by both….
Despite the incredible variety of imagined characters and situations in these stories, they have a sameness of concern that makes reading them in a collection less satisfying than encountering them one by one in various magazines and periodicals…. The oppressive sense of dread is too constant, and there are too many existential errands to keep the reader's fear on edge; their cumulative effect lies more in the direction of claustrophobia and migraine. To be fair, it is best to read her stories at decent intervals and not go straight through the book as one might with a collection of Cheever's. (p. 6)
Elizabeth Pochoda, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 31, 1975.
Ms. Oates reports that an entity named Fernandes invaded her mind and compelled her to write [the] thoroughly uncharacteristic tales [in The Poisoned Kiss]. Fernandes appears to have read a bit of Borges, but the business is otherwise quite unaccountable. The stories, for all their deliberately remote character, are good. (p. 85)
Phoebe Adams, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1975.
Few novelists worth serious attention are also greatly popular, and of those who are, few are willing to risk great failure by innovation. Mailer, Styron and Roth are exceptions, and now Joyce Carol Oates. This is a polite way of saying that she has finally written a very bad, nearly incoherent novel. Yet if "The Assassins" fails to accomplish what its author intended, it is nonetheless a deliberate enterprise. Oates warned us three years ago what we might expect from her: an attempted synthesis of dark energies with a mystical vision, a novel about "our contemporary neurosis—a failure to see how we are all participating in a communal consciousness."…
Like so many of the principals in Oates's fiction, each is partly mad; each is determined in his perverse and individual way to reduce or deny his own humanity….
"The Assassins" is an obscure novel, long, prolix and ill-disciplined. At times, Oates seems to be defying the reader to make his way through her pages. Her first chapter, for instance, cannot be understood until the book is two-thirds done, and Hugh's narration is so studded with fragmented phrases, dashes and exclamation points as to become quickly infuriating. The characters are never made interesting or even credible; each is instead an anthology of psychotic responses, assembled to advance some comprehensive, obscurely articulated idea of man's essential harmony….
Oates has managed to make lunacy more boring than sanity. Which it probably is in reality, but rarely is in fiction.
Peter S. Prescott, "Varieties of Madness," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1975, p. 100.
There are many varieties of literary relentlessness—the relentlessness of greed, of inspiration, of ambition; there is the relentlessness of fear—I must produce, I must produce. I would not venture to say what has driven Joyce Carol Oates to write [The Assassins], which runs to almost 600 pages. But one feels it was set in print just as it came off the typewriter. Its unevenness, the shapelessness of the prose, the excesses of the plot, the over-dramatization of the characters are as distracting to the reader as the steady clatter of the typewriter itself. (pp. 42-3)
The deeper one reads into the book, the more one feels that the people and feelings are basically the kind you get in television political thrillers. They are familiar, but their faces and their actions have been altered so that "any resemblance to real persons or events" cannot, rightfully, "be inferred." This kind of imaginative plastic surgery vulgarizes the reality it was performed upon. The "resemblance" is calculated enough to titillate, to keep us reading, to suggest real connections both to history and to our own lives—but those connections are never made.
Joyce Carol Oates is not, of course, a literary opportunist, a cheap scenario writer. There is no question of her talent. She is a very individual writer with many strengths, and one keeps looking forward to her books. Yet in The Assassins it is difficult to know for whom she is writing.
One presumes that all novels are written for some audience. It may consist of one ideal (and nonexistent) reader, or millions of uncritical ones. With the best fiction one has a sense of being personally sought out and recognized by the writer. A reader trusts her identity to such a writer. Given that intimacy, certain rules must be observed which make it safe to take that risk, to have those expectations. Style is, at that point, the highest form of courtesy, even when that style is difficult or experimental. With cheap fiction, with bad fiction, one of course has no expectations. Nothing is personal. One remains aloof. And it doesn't matter.
What is so unnerving to me about The Assassins is that Joyce Carol Oates's sense of her readers waxes and wanes so unreliably. Sometimes we are there. The writing is full of brilliant recognitions. At other moments she is staring out into the blank behind her typewriter, talking completely to herself. At other moments she gives us the slick, melodramatic hype of the best-seller.
It is a little as if we were invited to a very long and elaborate dinner. The first course is caviar. The next is peanut butter on Ritz crackers. Then real turtle soup followed by Big Macs on soggy buns, and on and on, the tasteless alternating with the exquisite, the senses aroused and bludgeoned in turn. And all the while the hostess in her evening dress, with her literary medals pinned to her breast, is looking around at her guests with a fragile, an inscrutable, smile. Is she insulting us—is this a joke? Does she have such great skill and such bad taste that she can offer us this sequence of strange courses without noticing their incongruity? Or has the meal been catered completely from her unconscious? (p. 43)
Judith Thurman, "Joyce Carol Oates: Caviar and a Big Mac," in Ms. (© 1976 Ms. Magazine Corp.), February, 1976, pp. 42-3.