Joyce Carol Oates Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Oates, Joyce Carol 1938–

Oates is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, critic, and editor now living in Canada. She is an extremely prolific writer, contributing both fiction and nonfiction 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, Vol. 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have been an early fancier of Joyce Carol Oates's fiction, which struck me as that always admirable thing: writing possessed of feminine sensitivity that in no way harps on such sensitivity but simply and hardheadedly puts it to work. And surrounds it with other good, solid virtues, neither feminine nor unfeminine, such as looking at the world steadily and long, and blinking only when absolutely necessary. (p. 284)

[It] is with mixed pleasure and apprehension that I watch Miss Oates wildly sowing her gifts in all directions: essays, reviews, poetry, plays, film criticism, and probably a few other genres that slipped by me on the pages of every known and several unknown magazines. It is so much the variousness as the sheer bulk of these outpourings that worries me: I respect a polymath but not a polygrapher. And I wonder whether this material, as uneven as a fever chart in quality, is the product of a steamily teaming brain, or of a bureau full of assorted literary productions that has dogged Miss Oates since college and has finally been unleashed on the world. (pp. 284-85)

[Sunday Dinner] is an attempt at an absurdist play, without, I am afraid, the grim lucidity that lurks at the core of good theater of the absurd…. The creepy Midwestern family that returns from a visit to Mother's grave and settles down to the usual gripes, bickerings and pontifications to be consumed with the Sunday dinner, is a bunch of tolerable Oatesian grotesques, with one foot in Babbittry, the other in Grant-Woodsy gothic. But when a possibly blind census taker, who is possibly not a census taker and possibly the long-absconded Father, arrives, joins in the dinner, asks bizarre questions and obtains even queerer answers—not to mention confessions of sins as inscrutably symbolic as they are extravagantly purple, and the whole thing erupts into violence…. I tell you, I don't know what I'm telling you, or what I have been told.

Miss Oates provides some funny and well-written lines, but they prove merely that she knows about words, not necessarily about theater. (p. 285)

John Simon, "'Sunday Dinner'" (1970), in his Uneasy Stages: A Chronicle of the New York Theater, 1963–1973 (copyright © 1975 by John Simon; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1976, pp. 284-85.

Sue Simpson Park

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The title [of "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life over Again"], with its seventeen words, suggests a departure from the conventional practice of relatively short titles. The headnote for the story provides a further hint as to the experimental quality of what is to follow: "Notes for an essay for an English class at Baldwin Country Day School; poking around in debris; disgust and curiosity; a revelation of the meaning of life; a happy ending…." A prefiguration of the contrapuntal nature of the story is evident in these preliminaries: on the one hand, the abstractions of contemplation, revelation, the meaning of life, beginning life over again; on the other, the tangibility of the Detroit House of Correction and an English class at Baldwin Country Day School. (pp. 213-14)

The "notes for an essay" are presented in twelve divisions marked with Roman numerals. At first glance, one surmises from the form that this is the work of a careful student, arranging material in an orderly fashion … for the purpose of organizing experience into a coherent system. Such an assumption, however, is erroneous, for the divisions do not constitute a topical outline; neither are they chronological. Instead, they are repetitive, disjointed, and dispersive—in other words, indicative of the state of mind of the sixteen-year-old protagonist, confused, questioning, attempting to make sense of the senseless, to impose order upon chaos. (p. 214)

Three divisions are labeled "Events"—the first, the seventh, and the twelfth. Hence the story begins, centers, and ends in recollected action; and action at least is relatively unequivocal, however ambiguous the motives behind the action….

Events, Characters, and Places are the focal points of her outline, but there is no intrinsic order to the arrangement of points; it is random, apparently unpurposeful. What knits the scraps of information together into a movingly effective totality is not the protagonist's pathetic effort to establish meaningful continuity, but the artist's skillful interweaving of motifs and verbal echoes.

Basic to the ultimate unity of the story is a pattern of contrasts. The title and the headnote suggest this contrapuntal interplay; the story elaborates upon the suggestion. Bloomfield Hills is contrasted with inner-city Detroit, the girl's mother with the prostitute Clarita, the girl's father with the procurer-addict Simon. The differences are vast—and yet in each case the contrast is intensified by a curious and significant identity. But most important is the duality of the girl herself.

The pattern of contrasts is established by unlike settings. Bloomfield Hills is an exclusive suburb with "monumental houses."… Detroit, on the other hand, is a world that is "falling out the bottom."… (p. 215)

Bloomfield Hills and Detroit, different as they are, are really two sides of one coin, a coin of insecurity and potential violence.

The mother-Clarita contrast also fits this pattern. Whereas the mother is a "lady [with] hair like blown-up gold … hair and fingers and body of inestimable grace," Clarita is a "woman" with "hair long and falling into strands, not recently washed."… The...

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Sanford Pinsker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Oates' third novel—Expensive People (1968)—was a radical departure from the social milieu and gritty realities of her first books. By that I mean, the world of Richard Everett [the narrator] is as much a "fiction" as the fiction he self-consciously tries to write. The result is a parody of the reflexive mode, a book about the making of such books. It is also a Nabokovian romp in the art-and-craft of confessional narration…. As in all novels built upon the structural principle of Chinese boxes, the inter-locking frames are apparently endless. Richard Everett's highly personal reading of "The Molesters" (a story Miss Oates originally published in The Quarterly Review of Literature) reduces it to the level of biographical allegory; Miss Oates' comments about Expensive People are an exercise in a similar brand of impressionism. Both imply partial truths, but when "authors" multiply dizzyingly, readers quickly learn the virtues of skepticism. (p. 89)

Ironies generate from the considerable gaps between [Richard Everett's] narrative intention and its fictive result. Put another way: Richard's account of suburban malaise is an exercise in simultaneously calling tensions into existence and then declaring them inoperative. (p. 90)

Expensive People is more a study in comic nihilism, in suburban emptiness, than it is a seriously rendered psychodrama…. Imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery; parodic echoes—and particularly those which raise the zany to another power—are a very different matter. Like the Ambrose of John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, Richard wears his writer's block...

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Marie Mitchell Olesen Urbanski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fifteen-year-old Connie's acquiescence to Arnold Friend's threat-ridden seduction is an appropriate finale to Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" in a narrative which, upon careful analysis, suggests existential allegory. Many critics have classified Oates's work as realistic or naturalistic, whereas Samuel J. Pickering categorizes her short stories as subjective romanticism to a fault [see CLC, Vol. 6]. Most, however, agree she is writing in the tradition of Dreiser, Faulkner, and O'Connor, but few have acknowledged the allegorical nature of her work. Veiling the intent of "Where Are You Going …" in realistic detail, Oates sets up the framework of a religious allegory—the seduction of Eve—and with it renders a contemporary existential initiation theme—that of a young person coming to grips with externally determined fate. (p. 200)

From the outset of the narrative, members of Connie's family recognize their powerlessness and thus their difference from her. Her mother and sister are not attractive, so they do not really count; and her father, who spends most of his time at work, is weak…. Thus, in refusing to attend a family picnic, Connie is rejecting not only her family's company, but the settled order of their existence—in which recognition of "excluded alternatives" is tantamount to acceptance of their lives.

The popular music which permeates "Where Are You Going …" is at the same time the narrative's zeitgeist and leitmotiv, serving as the former in order to maintain plausible realism, and the latter to establish allegorical significance. The recurring music then, while ostensibly innocuous realistic detail, is in fact, the vehicle of Connie's seduction and because of its intangibility, not immediately recognizable as such. Attesting to the significance of the zeitgeist in this narrative, "Where Are You Going …" is dedicated to Bob Dylan, who contributed to making music almost religious in dimension among the youth. It is music—instead of an apple—which lures Connie, quickens her heartbeat; and popular lyrics which constitute Friend's conversation and cadence—his promises, threats, and the careless confidence with which he seduces her. (pp. 200-01)

Oates employs musical metaphor in her description of Friend. "He spoke in a simple lilting voice, exactly as if he were reciting the words to a song."… Intrinsic to Friend's function is the fact that he himself is a record. While waiting for Connie to accept his ride offer, "he began to mark time with the music from Ellie's radio."… Even their union is presaged by the sexually pointed observation of Connie listening "to the music from her radio and the boy's blend...

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Jeremy Treglown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The solemn domestic absorption of many of Joyce Carol Oates's stories seems narcissistic,… though this prolific and highly acclaimed author often writes well and, of course, her concerns are … obviously up-to-date: the imposition and effects of sex-roles, especially in marriage; the plight of the educated, jobless wife; adultry-drift; and so on. Half of the 15 stories in [Crossing the Border] form a fragmented novel about a couple who have left the States for Canada, so that Evan, a research scientist, can escape doing morally repugnant work in 'defence biology'. His wife Renée is increasingly restless, and her characteristically frantic moves towards and away from an affair with a horrifically self-satisfied married poet are closely described.

Several of the stories are effectively bizarre—one about a mental defective who haunts Renée, for example (though I couldn't help thinking how much more Ian McEwan, say, would have made of this)…. To often, though, the writing is slackly uncommunicative. Take, for example, this corny piece of literary self-reference of Renée's:

Our lives are narrative; they are experienced in the flesh … but they are recollected as poems, lyrics, condensed, illuminated by a few precise images. It would be dramatic of me to say that our relationship with Blaine ended at that moment …

Well, does she mean narratives, or does she mean lyrics? Or does she—as 'dramatic' suggests—mean plays? She couldn't care less, of course: the metaphors are so tired that there's nothing to choose between them. And this tendency to let a group of random shots do service for one on target is symptomatic. (p. 27)

Jeremy Treglown, in New Statesman (© 1978 the Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 7, 1978.

Harold Beaver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Crossing the Border] Joyce Carol Oates has produced another fine set of tales—witty, wily and variegated. The theme yet again is one of "marriages and infidelities"; the scene that of her home town (Windsor, Ontario) on the United States-Canada Border…. At this political junction (between Windsor and Detroit, Lake Erie and Lake Huron) she plots a series of emotional junctures that also evoke "natural borders". At all such borders travellers, she insists, must confront the abrupt and unexpected challenge of alien "customs".

The stories are linked not only by theme and setting, though, but by the marital rift of an American couple…. The woof of their commonplace marital disaffection, adultery and disillusion, threading in and out of alternate stories, binds and packages the volume….

For her central object of concern is the domestic male within marriage. Can the male of the species survive marriage? Can his boyish, exuberant, insecure and romantic self harden sufficiently to bolster and prop the marriage or must it inevitably shatter and dissipate itself in endless impotent and shallow flirtations? Must the female always be so triumphantly and passionately unhappy? Must the men, in dreary self-preservation, always end by begging for forgiveness and support from a woman's strength? In middle age must they turn so scathingly bitter? Are they ever truly capable of loving anyone?…

It is a terrible indictment. The heroic task, then, is to preserve the frail compact of marriage. The borders of that compact are defined by several outsiders—an importunate homosexual, a friendly simpleton, a potential lover—who intrude on the married nest. The need is to obviate the danger, to deflect it, to decamp if necessary, to isolate the marriage itself. "All marriages", the lover's voice concludes (amid a buzz of conflicting ironies), are "workable in ways that can't be described". But should the marriage fail, it is the males, exiled from domesticity, who are lost in a limbo: of common rooms, if lucky; if not so lucky, in the stale air of post offices with ex-lawyers, ex-graduates, ex-executives, ex-citizens (black and white), sorting out "acres of mail, mountains of mail, from one shadow to another", in that final haven of peace and communal silence.

Harold Beaver, "Heroes of Marriage," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 14, 1978, p. 789.

Victoria Glendinning

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Son of the Morning"] is a hugely ambitious novel. Clearly well-researched, it could serve as a basis for the sociological study of the theory and practice of Pentecostal religion. It explores the phenomenon of "revelation" and mystical experience with an extraordinary imaginative thrust. It poses, without answering, questions about the nature of Christ, the church as an institution, and whether there is God or only the desire for God, leading to madness; and whether He is a God of Salvation or a vast metaphysical appetite for souls, a destroyer….

[The] author enters into the heightened feelings and experiences of nearly every character in the large cast—except God's. But the girl's...

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Robert Phillips

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ms. Oates's [Night Side] is … more than a grab-bag. All 18 tales are concerned with borderline reality, what the author has called "that mysterious realm of the paranormal." [It] differs considerably from her early novels in that almost all the violence is mental rather than actual…. [These] are interior tales—stories of individuals haunted by their own uneasinesses and anxieties. What is striking is how Ms. Oates manages to reconstruct the dreams and nightmares which afflict us all…. (p. 601)

Robert Phillips, in Commonweal (copyright © 1978 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 15,...

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