Oates, Joyce Carol 1938–
Oates is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, and critic now living in Canada. Her work is peopled with lonely characters engaged in a vain search for love and self-knowledge in an indifferent world. Violence forms a motif throughout Oates's work; her characters are its victims as well as its perpetrators. A serious artist, Oates has yet to write a major work. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Oates writes prose of striking directness and simplicity. Everything she writes bears the marks of a terrific imaginative pressure. That pressure is also the clue to her astonishing productivity…. The model of the driven writer, she invests everything she touches with the qualities of her own voice, which is nervous, fast, febrile and hot as an iron. I'd unhesitatingly say that she is one of the most important living American writers, and sadly underestimated here [in England].
In the 24 stories of Marriages and Infidelities, dealing with adultery, death, murder, madness and obsessive relationships (a central theme for her), Oates creates a series of metaphors for American life, perhaps urban life, overridden by a panicked sense of unreality and hidden violence—violence which is about to happen. She can be very frightening, but is never merely sensational; nothing seems plotted simply for effect. Also, she reports an American reality seldom seen in fiction by a woman—the American of the working and lower middle class. Bus stations, the cosmetics counter at Woolworth's, Saturdays spent on crowded, gritty beaches, the smell of beer in a roadhouse parking lot: Oates has total recall of these details. And she is entirely unafraid to extend her normal manner, so that a number of these stories exhibit a stunning technical courage. (p. 261)
Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), August 23, 1974.
[The Poisoned Kiss and Other Stories from the Portuguese] are as 'Portuguese' as Mrs Browning's sonnets. They were inspired by an imagined Portuguese writer, 'Fernandes', who suggested images and stories to Miss Oates in a series of waking visions. Interestingly, it was not a case of possession or trance so much as of polite insistence from one part of her brain, which (usefully) interfered with neither her teaching nor the rest of her writing. There is no specific attempt to evoke Portugal, or indeed to present any close description; but despite the greater degree of abstraction, these stories come from the recognisable Oates territory of obsession and extremity, solitude and violence…. Miss Oates perhaps had more compunction about interfering with her Portuguese muse than with her native one; and some of the pieces are not so much brief as fugitive. But the longer ones (especially a neat tale of a writer discovering himself to be an unconscious plagiarist) have scale enough and a spare, intriguing power. (p. 685)
Julian Barnes, in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 21, 1976.
The Joyce Carol Oates phenomenon has begun to jangle the nervous system of the literary establishment. Her name, once mentioned with reverence among the literati, is now increasingly spoken in jest. Her problem, imply the critics, is that she writes too much.
A work of art, these days, from conception to birth, must be years in the making. But Oates populates the literary world with a new one every nine months, and the critical feeling seems to be that if she can produce offspring as easily as an Irish washerwoman, then what she does can't be that good after all. As a result, The Assassins has caused only a minor literary stir. Had it taken three or four years to write the very same novel, however, I am convinced that it would have been greeted with boundless critical enthusiasm….
[It has a] story line … that should dazzle any with-it contemporary critic, as should the novel's theme and structure.
"Why insist upon chronological experience?" asks Hugh near the beginning of the book; obviously, he is speaking for the author herself, who certainly does not thus insist, but who flirts with time very artfully indeed, darting back and forth, in and out, yet always skillfully holding together the particularities. And she flirts with reality as well, offering differing and conflicting perceptions of shared experiences in a way which adds somehow, not only to the action, but to the characters themselves. (p. 965)
[Oates's] style reflects her own instinctive and automatic perception of human experience. That style has not been painfully contrived with an eye toward literary fashion, as is often the case with her peers. There has been no time. Her last book of short stories was published in March, and this novel is nearly six hundred pages long. And yet she has contrived it perfectly. When her critics suggest querulously that she slow down and rewrite, I cannot imagine what they have in mind. Stylistically, she is irreproachable.
Having said that, however, I still find myself troubled by the central Oatesian failing, a failure of vision. I may be on shaky ground here—certainly most contemporary critics would say so. If, after all, the woman's perception of the universe is that it is ultimately senseless, chaotic, and demented, then we can hardly ask her to write us sane and rational novels. Shaky ground indeed, even when we label that perception a defect, for the modern novel has been encouraged to move so far down the path of obsessional derangement that any attempt to herd it back up would be as silly as asking a contemporary double-knit politician to adopt the programs and mannerisms of Calvin Coolidge.
And if I were called upon to criticize the modern novel for the path it is taking, I would certainly not begin with Joyce Carol Oates; for, again, unlike so many of her faddish contemporaries, when she shows the universe to be maniacally malign, she seems really to mean it. In contrast to, say, a Pynchon novel, an Oates work leaves the impression that the author honestly sees nothing in the scheme of things to prevent her from being arbitrarily hacked to death…. Literary trends and the Oatesian vision have happily collided, creating, if not great art, at least the genuine article. (pp. 965-66)
Patricia S. Coyne, "Thinking Man's Breakfast," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), September 3, 1976, pp. 965-66.
The dazzling multiplicity of writings by Joyce Carol Oates may bewilder, impress, or dismay her readers. Stories, novels, poems, essays, plays, stream from her demonic imagination with a fecundity unsurpassed by any of her contemporaries…. She seems to share with Robert Penn Warren and Iris Murdoch the ability to reach both a broad, general audience and the realm of the intense literati. But along with such abundance of invention comes the risk of failure or deep flaw: thus Oates's brilliant success in her recent volume of stories The Seduction is simultaneously offset by her unreadable novel The Assassins…. [One] of the stories, "A Posthumous Sketch," shows Oates in her best vein of horror, enigma, compassion, and awareness of mysterious psychic currents that invest human relationships and their relation to the outer universe. But the other piece of prose, "The Child-Martyr," is a total failure—a labored effort at grotesque religious allegory.
The poems show a more consistent excellence; only a few fade out into incoherence or flatness of phrasing…. Despite such flaws, the theme of the book is well expressed in the opening poem, "Broken Connections," where the image of a dead telephone line strikes a motif found elsewhere in the book, as in "Lovers," where we find two people physically separated, yet locked together by the ringing and the silence of the telephone, or in the fine short poem "Two Insomniacs"…. The tautness of the simple language here, conveying the bitter longing of the lovers, is an instance of the risks that Oates will take and win. Usually her successes are more strongly involved in concrete detail…. (pp. 114-15)
Oates is not only trying to convey, in her abrupt, tenuous apprehensions, the sense of broken connections everywhere; she is at the same time suggesting the need to mend connections…. (p. 117)
The wonder-working of the volume resides in her success in convincing us that connection is possible through the fabulous beasts that we are, or create, by our verbal powers. She quotes Heidegger in one epigraph: "it is not we who play with words, but the nature of language plays with us." That is to say, in terms of this poetry, language lies at the core of our humanity, demanding our response and creation, so different from the limited forces found in outer nature…. Meanwhile, her gothic imagination has a distinctive way of twisting the potentially sentimental into a horror; thus a kiss becomes "Our mouths together, a communion of wounds"; snowflakes become like "insects swollen with white blood"; walking on the beach suggests "faceless mouths beneath our feet, sucking-sighing"; and even the annual American exercise of returning Christmas gifts on December 26 reveals a cry of anguish for a gift of love lost and unreturnable…. Nevertheless, in the penultimate poem of the book, the human "I" apprehends a strange unity, after the manner of an ancient Greek saying, "All things are full of gods."… It is a good account of the impact made by this entire (and it is a whole) book. (pp. 117-18)
Louis L. Martz, in The Yale Review (© 1976 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1976.
Joyce Carol Oates in The Assassins: A Book of Hours gives an elaborate but also feverish and intensely shallow rendition of the problem of women and violence. She returns to the alarmist, even paranoid spirit of the end of Them, and commits herself to the subject of violence with a relentlessness that all but invents a violence of length. The book is a sort of triptych with the central character, in every sense, being Yvonne, the woman who attracts, causes, suffers, imagines, and dismisses violence. She marries into the Petrie family (an odd conflation of the Buckleys and Kennedys, with the Karamazovs thrown in). One brother, Andrew, is a politician, one, Hugh, is an artist, and the third, Stephen, is a religious fanatic…. The story is in some respects a whodunit whose limpness is supposed to be a sign of a psychic or spiritual involvement. But the adagio parade of suspects assumes rather than substantially assuring that the reader will consider it worthwhile to have done in the ultra right-wing Andrew Petrie, or urgent to associate the deed with members of his family or various faintly limned pseudo-political types.
But fear of extermination may be the donnée of the story—Hugh and Yvonne and Stephen and Andrew all evince it—as well as other common traits that make the multiplication of characters seem a generic cliché rather than an intrinsic need. One cannot be sure how much the story owes to The Paranoid Style in American Politics, but surely the self-importance that is wedded to paranoia appears repeatedly in the caricaturist Hugh and the caricaturish Stephen (the former thinks he is an Artist omnipotent, the latter calls a spade a spade and thinks he is God). In some respects the story is too blatant, too much given to the inconvertible and incontrovertible terms "must" and "will." Its ironies, where one might imagine them, are imprecisely wielded or facile, as in the equating of "God" and "catastrophe," or in all too readily slipping, in its own idiom, into "the most outrageous, merciless scenarios."
Behind the surface solidity of the story's violence there seems to lie a disbelief in the solidity of persons and things, or a rank impatience with them. The violence bears paradoxical witness to this, as heads are blown off and limbs hacked away and the world itself apparently becomes a "galaxy of tiny secret writhing seething bits, deathly white, ferociously alive, utterly silent." Even casual thoughts and gestures suggest a universe of insolidity; the ripping up of a letter resembles the "wiping out" or "obliteration" that Hugh and Yvonne wish for whatever inconveniences them…. (pp. 148-49)
It is this casual thought of ultimate violence that eventually dominates and virtually defines The Assassins. The book rather emptily envisions the wiping out of sex differences, and the coming of "some messianic androgynous youth," but its loyalty goes to the negative apocalypse implied in the notion that the only alternative to the physical act of "writing" is "chaos" (biographers and structuralists take note). Perhaps there is a parallelism with the notion that the alternative to "violence" is "nothing."
Finally, the Oatesian brand of violence betrays not so much a deficiency as a denial of human life. It is revealing that The Assassins is centrally populated by impotent men and frigid women. The novel makes repeated pseudo-apocalyptic use of the pronoun "it," without strict identification. Instead of marshalling, this amounts to the neutering of all experiences, and the reader is left with a suspicion that the novel's violence is primarily engendered by the state or act of neutering. One of the early moments of The Assassins presents a picture of the human person as a head without adequately developed genitals (to say nothing of the heart). It is, one discovers, a frequent, key image, and a sinister cousin to the Oatesian neuter "it." There would have been a certain fascination—especially in light of the conventional association of man and intellect, woman and emotion—if Joyce Carol Oates had been here exploring and evaluating the modern intellectualist bias. But in her use of the caput sine genitalibus, she seems rather to be exhibiting that bias, and so illustrating the position that "the brain finds itself seriously threatened by an enemy of its own making. It is its own enemy." It is at any rate the enemy of everything else in Oates's vision, and proof that while the genitals cannot give rise to brains, the brains cannot give rise to life (or at times compelling fiction). (pp. 149-50)
Michael G. Cooke, in The Yale Review (© 1976 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1976.
Joyce Carol Oates has written her best novel in years. "Childwold" has tenderness for the courage of people locked by social class and sexual desire into a noose-embrace. In this tale of a poor farm family—a blowsy mother whose many children have many fathers, her 14-year-old daughter, Laney, and Kasch, an anguished intellectual who loves them both—Oates reaches the power of statement and compassion that marked ["them"]….
Miss Oates has remained fascinated by poverty as a form of exclusion and self-exclusion from the significant world. But her social awareness surfaces in "Childwold" as a poor kid's anxiety. (p. 8)
Childhood is the fragile barrier against the future as a have-not or a killer. The novel's tight Oedipal triangle opens into a triple alliance against age and aggression as each person tries to turn the biological clock back towards innocence….
Miss Oates's verbal brilliance bares characters who are driven by blind impulse through the pitifully few parts they can play. I think she rhapsodizes the incomprehensibility of their lives too lovingly. She virtually pleads for their blindness as a way of not seeing how little real mystery there is in lives that seem predestined to be unhappy. Fate could have written this primal drama of mother, daughter and rich man. And the novel's major flaw is exactly an almost superhuman, torrential flow of words that washes out the individual voice and often makes it difficult to tell who is saying what. The rapid-fire flashbacks that open the novel are its least effective part, offering little more than jumbled scenes of violence recollected with nostalgia. But "Childwold" is more brilliant than its beginning.
Protective, sacrificial love as a weapon against greater despair has gone out of fashion, particularly in the novel. But Joyce Carol Oates has made it new again. This insistent writer can call us back, through her dense psychological and social detail, to rural America in a spiritual and economic depression. The characters of "Childwold" inspire the terror and recognition once aroused by those monumental "lonelies" of William Faulkner and Carson McCullers. Passing over the current sense of sex as a matter of problem-solving, "Childwold" turns back the clock toward a tradition in which life is decipherable only through the code of compassion. Miss Oates has mastered that code and penetrated the morbidity of her view of life as a life sentence. (p. 30)
Josephine Hendin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 28, 1976.
Having forged past the wind-rocked bed, the weightless moon, and the threshing walnut tree on the first page [of "Childwold"], I can report that, while Oates remains true to the style of her opening, she includes enough in the way of character and action to allay the suspicion that the publisher is trying to palm off a runaway lyric poem. Nevertheless, despite the soothing traces of a novel, a certain question may arise in the minds of unsuspecting readers aware of the author's renown but unfamiliar with her previous work (I generalize from my own position); namely, What is she getting at?
Closer acquaintance with Oates indicates that there is no easy answer to that question. The clearest thing about her is the vehemence of her feelings: clearer than her view of life, an inconclusive mixture of sentimentality and disgust; clearer than her high-strung poetic prose; clearer than her characters, settings, or plots, which are cloudy with hidden meanings. Oates is primarily a conveyer of overwhelming emotion….
[It] seems to me that her infatuation with the mystery of the universe, and with the manifold ways of expressing that mystery, is the main weakness of ["Childwold," "them," and "Do with Me What You Will"]. In the two earlier novels, Oates lavishes considerable thought and verbal facility on creating some memorably eccentric characters and then lets them wander away from her after five hundred pages or so, to the mixed confusion and relief of the reader, exhausted by the absence of likelihood. There is a passage in "Childwold" that seems to describe the philosophy at the bottom of this aimlessness:
By merest chance. Infinite universe, infinitely expanding, Principle of Indeterminacy, merest chance, in one direction the maggot-swarming corpse with that idiot's tongue, in the other direction a ninety-five-pound angel, gray-eyed, fair hair curly….
In "Childwold," as in the two other books, the characters are permanently imprisoned in themselves, moving at random through a merciless world. Except for Kasch, who, serving as a stand-in for Oates, thinks and acts almost exclusively on a metaphysical plane, the characters have no motives, no expectations, no interests, and what I would call a meagre sense of reality. They live only on the borrowed energy of the author's attention.
Oates's strong points as a writer are the doggedness of her pursuit of subconscious thoughts and feelings and the ritualistic distance she keeps in celebrating the grimness of life, which gives power to her vision even when her verbal extravagance gets out of control…. There is a Principle of Indeterminacy at work in Oates's choice of words as well as in the lives of her characters.
Oates underestimates the value of ordinary life and language. The more conventional structure and the leisurely pace of "them" and "Do with Me What You Will" establish an illusion of direction that at least intermittently conceals the fact that there is no inner or outer force to define and give weight to the characters and events. But even in "them" she writes:
Like all lives, Jules's was long and richly tedious, vexed with prodigious details of physical existence he would have been ashamed to record, were he writing his own story: his story would deal with the spirit exclusively….
Of his experiences as a boy there hasn't been much time to speak, and anyway we have enough of these memories in other books. Of the many thousands of hours spent around kitchen tables—those eternal kitchen tables of the poor!—there is not much to say.
Oates now leans farther away from the substance of physical existence, toward its shadows, and from that oblique standpoint she has produced a novel that is the less interesting for its lack of those prodigious details. Prodigious details? Lying in ambush for the meaning of the universe, "Childwold" is distinctly languid. (pp. 74, 76)
Susan Lardner, "Oracular Oates," in The New Yorker (© 1977 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), January 3, 1977, pp. 74, 76.
The plan of The Assassins is legitimate and easily grasped. The narrative center, the controlling force of the book, is Andrew Petrie, though he is seen only in memory and in the effect that he has had on the other characters. We are told of Andrew's death in the opening pages and then we follow the mental peregrinations of Andrew's brother Hugh, his wife, Yvonne, and another brother, Stephen. From these loci of observation, which are highly subjective and which shift from time to time into pure stream of consciousness, we move into the lives of other characters, watch a dozen subplots unfold, and learn at last who actually pulled the murderous trigger. But this disclosure is anticlimactic, incidental almost to what has gone before, and like Do with Me What You Will and other recent books in Miss Oates's canon, the novel simply trails off—a welcome end to a dreary 568 pages.
From a technical standpoint what goes wrong first of all is the character of Andrew. He is a rich man with pretensions to politics and learning, a conservative who can command at least a limited amount of power. That he is not Miss Oates's sort of chap is clear from the outset, which is all well and good except that by not giving the devil his due she deprives her novel of its proper foundation. Andrew is flat, unrealized: he is snide when he should be cruel, mean when he should be evil. There is no sense of his flesh, of what tremors he caused when he walked the earth, no physical presence. As a consequence all other elements of the story suffer.
Hugh is a neurotic cartoonist, in love with Yvonne and on his way to insanity and suicide. But to what end this decay of the mind, the filthy apartment, the deteriorating talent, the growing paranoia, the psychedelic visions? If we could be sure—or even think—that Andrew when alive sowed the seeds of self-destruction in Hugh, then the novel might begin to cohere; but no such thing is ever rendered. Yvonne was a poor girl who had to make her own way, and she intends to make her way still, but she neither grieves nor shows a calm indifference. She aims to survive, which is a typical ambition in the work of Joyce Carol Oates, but the impulse to survival has no palpable connection with Andrew or with much of anything else that goes on in the story. Stephen is the most detached character of all; his narrative drifts and at times flounders in confusion; he seeks his own identity, but who has deprived him of the certainty of self in the first place, and how can we be sure that he has found himself in the end? In the final scene of the book, he is on the road with his sleeping bag, but what this has to do with Andrew's death or Yvonne's life or any of the other lives and deaths in the book, I cannot tell you.
Yet even this basic incoherence is not the worst that can be said about The Assassins. Other novelists have been unable to construct long narratives—Thomas Wolfe comes to mind—but the best of them have made up for weaknesses in structure and sometimes in characterization by the sharpness of their perceptions and the energy of their prose. In The Assassins one discerns a great weariness as if the author were half-asleep at the keys: the job seems to have been done by rote: inspiration and even desire appear to be lacking. And one might guess that such was the case. Those who have followed Miss Oates's career know what she can do—or could do when she first started writing. The sheer terror that is generated in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?", the worlds that are created in such books as A Garden of Earthly Delights and them, and the impoverished and abused and brilliantly realized heroines of these same fictions testify to the scope of Miss Oates's talent. Reading the books of her youth for the first time, we had a right to expect more than she is giving us in her maturity. Surely she is writing far too much; surely she owes herself and us more self-discipline. (pp. 116-17)
Walter Sullivan, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1976 by The University of the South), Winter, 1977.
Not "Stories," but "Tales," the subtitle says; as in Poe's "Tales," or Hawthorne's mossy old "Twice-Told Tales," or as in lurid mass-market paperbacks with titles like "Tales of the Supernatural." Because "Night-Side," Joyce Carol Oates's new addition to her dozen or so books of fiction, presents a gallery of people haunted, spooked, driven mad or victimized in general by invasions from outside the sane, rational borders of consciousness. (p. 15)
[These] are not literal ghost stories, but Oates has borrowed from the creepiness and disorientation of that genre to give a distinctive emotional color to her otherwise rather clinical studies of mental disorder.
Good old mental disorder and distress. Maybe the otherworldly tone of "Night-Side" is unusual in today's serious fiction, and even something of a departure for this author—although hauntings have turned up before in her writing, notably in "Wonderland" (1972)—but the subject of borderline sanity is one in which Joyce Carol Oates has been demonstrating a handy competence from way back. If there's a difference between the strange mental worlds here and those Miss Oates has taken us to before, it is that the pain pervading the new book is peculiarly lonely and private. Her most considerable works to date, for example, "Wonderland" and the National Book Award winner "Them" (1969), have been, to some extent, social novels, in which personal suffering ran deep, but was shared, too; was somehow familial or communal. In ["Night-Side"] … there's hardly an instance of two people understanding one another. The book is lined with sharply isolated madnesses, like jars on a shelf; discrete little psychoses and neuroses, with the lids on.
Oates's way with madness has two strengths: (1) She's clear-minded and sensible about disordered psyches, yielding not at all to the irresponsible, romanticizing tendency that's rightly been criticized in the recent craze for potboilers and films about insanity. The sources of anguish in Oates's people are neither too simple nor mysteriously abstruse: clues to a diagnosis are usually there somewhere, if you look. (2) Crucially, she has the knack of convincing us that individuals in the extreme states that interest her must actually think and feel as she says they do. And because it's convincing, the writing is involving and disturbing and real. Few contemporary writers can match the credibility and experiential power of Oates at her best. In almost all the stories these powers get a showing, and in five or six, Oates is at the top of her form. (pp. 15,18)
Fighting off needs and memories and subrational horrors is the action of "Night-Side." Mostly it's a fight the characters lose. At an inevitable moment, the lie is given to the glib rationales that support their sanity and they are brought up hard against what they can't suppress or deny. A quality of melodrama attaches to these revelatory moments, just as there is something melodramatic and overfamiliar about the underlying thesis that rationality itself is a fraud, an evasion of deeper, darker truths about the self. But there's such a thing as superior and intelligent melodrama—such as Poe's and Hawthorne's. Joyce Carol Oates's melodrama is first-rate, and, unlike other people's, it makes sound psychological sense. (p. 18)
John Romano, "A Way with Madness," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 23, 1977, pp. 15, 18.