Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 19)
Oates, Joyce Carol 1938–
Oates is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, critic, and editor. She is an extremely prolific writer whose fiction and nonfiction has been published in books as well as popular and scholarly journals. Her short stories reveal the full range of her artistry, for in that genre Oates seems to be in the greatest control of her material. Her fictional world is violent and tragic; her characters, disturbed and unhappy, are often victims of their social milieu and emotional weaknesses. Oates was the recipient of the National Book Award in 1970 for Them and has twice received the O. Henry Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, 11, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Joanne V. Creighton
[The Wheel of Love] has thematic unity: focusing exclusively on the emotional complexity of human relationships, the collection offers a rich—if distressing—view of the mysterious, volatile, and disorienting power of love. But the very obsessiveness of this thematic emphasis may contribute to the reader's disaffection with Oates. The reader is overcome with fatigue, bombarded as he is with repeated instances of unrelieved emotional misery. Moreover, he is likely to lose sight of the well-realized story in the chaff of the less luminous ones.
In this collection sexual love is invariably a compulsive, essentially joyless, terrifying, painful and unwelcome experience. (p. 375)
The Wheel of Love is populated with innumerable men and women who have sealed themselves off from physical and emotional experience. Oates often employs clerics such as Sister Irene of "In the Region of Ice" and Father Rollins of "Shame" to depict the emotional sterility that sometimes accompanies the protective sanctuary of the celibate life…. Other men and women of the volume do not need the garb of the religious life to exclude physicality from life. For example, Pauline of "Bodies," a talented sculptress interested only in "heads," is coolly aloof from "bodies," from the physical and emotional bonds among people, until an emotionally disturbed young man forces her into a relationship by the violent expedient of slashing his...
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Linda W. Wagner
To view Oates' fiction in retrospect is to be surprised that what seemed to be basically "realistic" fiction has so many variations, and shows such range of experimentation, such wealth of literary antecedent. But whether she writes a comic Expensive People, an impressionistic Childwold, or that strangely heightened realism of them and the short stories, her interest is less in technical innovation than it is in trying the border between the real and the illusory, in testing the space in which those two seemingly separate entities converge….
Oates' conviction—made increasingly clear in the progression of her fiction—is that people in the modern world generally pretend to be tied to the factual, the largely physical details of living (accordingly, reassuringly, she will give numerous details about a dimestore cosmetic counter or a physician's crowded dining table). But although we focus on these tangible props, our understanding of them does not necessarily help us apprehend the larger forces behind them. Oates has repeatedly been called a "realist" because her technique often does suggest that method; but for the most part, her accumulation of fact is an irony—locating and describing the easily discernible is precisely what will not work in any full confrontation with reality…. The fascination for Oates as writer lies in acknowledging that her readers' interest will center on character rather than...
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G. F. Waller
The almost obligatory topic with which to introduce Oates is, in fact, the amount she has published. A survey of her work may suggest a compulsive writer and maybe even a lack of self-criticism. Her poems … are often jagged and metrically uncertain, and sometimes over-packed with superfluous words; but frequently they can crystallize with electrifying clarity inexplicable moments of experience on the edge of fear, despair, terror, or joy. Many read, in fact, like passionate footnotes to her stories or novels…. As well as overlapping with her fiction, her criticism, it should be noted, is often extraordinarily suggestive, especially in the way it opens up, by analogy or brooding meditation, startling psychological and philosophical perspectives.
It is in the short stories perhaps that Oates's best work is to be found…. Many of the stories are certainly repetitive or trivial. But some—"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," "Unmailed, Unwritten Letters," "Accomplished Desires" from The Wheel of Love, "The Sacred Marriage" from Marriages and Infidelities, to mention a few of the best—are so bewilderingly evocative that they must rate along with the masterpieces of the genre…. [But] it is with her novels that her reputation and importance must rest. It is there that her prophetic urgency, the obsessive desire to "dream America," emerges at its most tantalizing, frustrating, and evocative. The early novels,...
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"Bellefleur" is the most ambitious book to come so far from that alarming phenomenon Joyce Carol Oates. However one may carp, the novel is proof, if any seems needed, that she is one of the great writers of our time. "Bellefleur" is a symbolic summation of all this novelist has been doing for 20-some years, a magnificent piece of daring, a tour de force of imagination and intellect….
What we learn, reading "Bellefleur," is that Joyce Carol Oates is essentially a realist. She can write persuasively of out-of-the-body experiences because she believes in them. But she does not really believe in a brutal half-wit boy who can turn into a dog, a man who is really a bear, vampires or mountain gnomes….
Miss Oates believes in these legendary characters only as symbols; and the problem is that they are not symbols of the same class as those she has been using for years, the symbols provided by the world as it is when it is viewed (as Miss Oates always views it) as a Christian Platonist's "vast array of emblems." The only really frightening scenes in "Bellefleur" deal with real-world atrocities—a boy's stoning of another boy, for instance, or the murder of a family by a bunch of drunken thugs—and these scenes in fact come nowhere near the horror of scenes in earlier novels by Miss Oates, such as the murder of Yvonne in "The Assassins." What drives Miss Oates's fiction is her phobias: that is, her fear that normal life...
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American literature doesn't have many Russians, Dostoyevskys into whose ears a mad god dictates, writers who are possessed. Melville is one, and Faulkner is another, and Norman Mailer on occasion is a third, depending on the phase of his moon. Joyce Carol Oates, however, is a Russian, drunk on God and history, hearing voices, speaking tongues, slapdash and parenthetical and repetitious and headlong, as if she had been hurled out of time and memory and patience, as if the future were a killer whale. (pp. 436-37)
The conventions of literature are, for Miss Oates, truncheons and harpoons. On one level, "Bellefleur" is Gothic pulp fiction, cleverly consuming itself. We are introduced to generation after generation of Bellefleurs, a family with a "curse." Is the curse passion, or greed?…
On another level, "Bellefleur" is fairy tale and myth, distraught literature. There is a walled garden, a decayed tower, a sinister cat, a swamp monster, a spider as big as a humming bird, a man who turns into a bear, a pond that breathes, [and other such elements]….
Can American history contain so much pulp and myth? Are we—in the 130 years or so it takes the Bellefleurs to disgrace themselves—that interesting?… When the vulture swoops to steal the bastard child Cassandra, is Miss Oates really serious?
Yes, she is serious, disdaining God and punishing sinners. Like a serious Russian, she is...
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John Calvin Batchelor
Joyce Carol Oates's 12th novel, Bellefleur, is stuffed with … joyous, breathless nonsense. It is the great gift here. One begins this overlong, voluptuously written book by resisting the Gothic winds; but then, because Hugh Walpole, the Brontes, and Mary Shelley really did invent something magical, one surrenders. Joyce Carol Oates has a huge, hilarious heart, her sense of humor and satire rivaling Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, Monty Python. One has previously been informed that she is prosaic and pretentious. Slander. In Bellefleur, she clowns, mesmerizes, takes off. This novel is for the beach, sidewalk cafe lunches, airplane rides. It has some very serious themes, such as time, justice, true religion; but its most serious—you'd hardly know it from the current reviews—accomplishment is that it is funny….
[The] most startling and important fact one learns from this lovely conceit, Bellefleur, is that Oates knows that comedy is more profound than tragedy, is certainly more difficult to write successfully, and is her true calling.
John Calvin Batchelor, "Hot News: Funny Oates" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 31, July 30-August 5, 1980, p. 34.
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When a plot grossly outweighs the main story, as it does here, the form is inefficient or else the novel is satirical. Bellefleur is definitely not satirical. It is an incredibly elaborate gothic romance, stuffed to overflowing with outsize, grotesquely intense characters who speak to one another breathlessly, in a rage or merely incoherently, and who beg to be taken as emblems for moral qualities or historical forces, or both. (p. 4)
It is certainly possible to read and enjoy a novel with characters and incidents like these: Faulkner, Garcia Márquez, Flannery O'Connor, and many other modern writers have asked us to face grotesque forms of violence, and by so doing have explored basic themes of character and destiny. But when there is no dramatic logic to those events and characters, when what happens is not inevitable but merely gratuitous, the book fails to move or inform us. Particularly disturbing in this case, however, is not that Bellefleur fails to move or inform us, but that it seems to function as a means of expressing the author's fantasies, for that is what one is forced to conclude from the sheer gratuitousness of the violence and nightmare. Dreams and fantasies hold to different logic than that of narrative art, which is why people quickly grow bored when one tries to recount them; they have a use solely for the dreamer and the fantasizer.
Furthermore, Bellefleur is shockingly...
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[Much] of Joyce Carol Oates's recent prose output has been an unpruned orchard of high gothic romance. The tales collected in A Sentimental Education are her newest transplants from the genre….
All six stories are plotless rambles through emotional terrain as bleak and autumnal as the settings in which they are cast. (p. 72)
Sound, not sense, is Miss Oates's strength; yet, frequently, her hypnotic cadences are shattered by a crescendo of unblushing hyperbole ("His blood surged, pulse upon pulse, in waves of clarity." "In his arms she was immortal."). Furthermore, there is no logical development or web of inevitability in the movement of her narrative. Each story seems to have been distilled from the subconscious effluvia of the moment. Wordy and vague, they are, at best, accessible only to the most indulgent and empathetic of readers. (p. 73)
David Bell, "Book Briefs: 'A Sentimental Education: Stories'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 8, No. 1, January, 1981, pp. 72-3.
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That Joyce Carol Oates writes with an unmistakably American voice is a truth more or less universally acknowledged. Though the locations of the six stories in "A Sentimental Education," as in her other fiction, are most often the urban and suburban Middle West and East Coast, she is not a regional writer. Her characters speak with the recognizable monotony of those whose inherited accents have been worn down by an indifferent education, mediocre journalism and exposure through radio and television to plastic English. (p. 7)
One of the characteristics of these tired people and their worn-out language is the lack of the resilience necessary to express self-knowledge through humor….
The loss of accent and of wit signals a broader, more inclusive poverty. Figures in the stories are repeatedly saying that they cannot help being the way they are and their actions bear them out. They are, for the most part, creatures without will and therefore with very little of what normally passes for character….
People behave as if in a state of permanent trance….
Their extraordinary and often violent behavior notwithstanding, the characters in these stories are not very interesting. Psychotic patterns flatten and simplify personality, but they do not replace it. One looks in vain for motivation, for reasoning or feeling of even the most rudimentary kind….
What does Joyce...
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