Joyce Carol Oates Oates, Joyce Carol (Vol. 19) - Essay

Joanne V. Creighton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 throat before her on the street.

Sometimes the fragile shell of immunity from emotional relationships is in danger of cracking. (p. 376)

Clearly, most characters in this volume are too weak to stand the "strain and risk" of love, and even if they can, the momentary highs of sexual ecstasy or felt love are inevitably accompanied by prolonged lows. Either the loved one dies ("The Wheel of Love," "What Is the Connection Between Man and Woman?") and the bereaved husband or wife is inconsolable in his grief, or the lovers seek death to be relieved from the burden and pain of powerful feelings ("Unmailed, Unwritten Letters," "I Was in Love"), or the lovers are punished for their happiness by the resentment of others (the woman's son attempts death in "I Was in Love" after her rendezvous with her lover; the husband in "Convalescing" is involved in a serious auto accident after hearing of his wife's affair). Furthermore, a number of Oatesian characters are so entangled in filial relationships that they are incapable of healthy love relationships outside of the family. Often a child is inhibited by the strength and vibrancy of the parents. (p. 377)

Feeling themselves to be unworthy of love or unable to risk it, or unable to experience it, or unhappy within it, jointly the characters of the collection offer a dismal view of the human being's incapacity to enjoy a healthy and wholesome emotional life. The pervasive low resiliency of the characters may fatigue and depress the reader as well; and from the volume as a whole, one may be left with an overwhelming sense of pessimism about the potentiality for fulfilling human relationships…. [The] thematic unity of the volume invites a faulty generalization which obscures rather than enhances the artistry of the separate stories. Oates is not writing about Human Nature; she is rather fashioning incidents which depict the problems and limitations of individual human beings. She excels in her ability to individuate and to specify; she is less successful when she attempts to draw generalized human types and situations.

The least successful...

(The entire section is 1471 words.)

Linda W. Wagner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 on milieu ("All literature deals with contests of will"), and then working within a method which seems to emphasize the latter.

If Oates is never a simple realist, neither is she the traditional character-oriented story teller. Her insistence on the importance of character remains oblique to usual protestations of that sort. Since one of the comforts of art is that it allows the artist to create order, to impose a personal moral standard on chaotic surroundings, most writers use character to reflect those personal standards. (p. xviii)

In Oates' fiction, for all its emphasis on fact and all its reliance on powerful character, the assumption that the artist is in control is clearly absent. Artist-as-judge has become artist-as-recorder. Her readers have sometimes expressed dismay that such unpleasant things happen to characters, while Oates as author appears to have little opinion about these reprehensible situations—little opinion, little sympathy, little outrage. What kind of moral judgment underlies Oates' fiction? So different is her approach to the use of character-to-instruct that many readers feel uncomfortable interpreting her fiction…. [Oates] tends to judge implicitly. Content to observe people in their usually mundane worlds, she presents them in their touching inarticulateness; most important, she ascribes little if any "meaning" to their suffering. Recognizing the mysteries of life—especially at this commonplace and often silent level—is Oates' accomplishment; translating that mute suffering so that readers are moved by it...

(The entire section is 1242 words.)

G. F. Waller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, although technically more cautious, nevertheless share the same obsessions as the mature works of the seventies, where Oates attempts to dramatize the mystery of the human spirit struggling amongst our personal and shared nightmares. (pp. 2-4)

Alongside most of her contemporaries, Oates does stand out as a curiously chameleon figure. "America outdoes all its writers," observes Richard, the narrator of Expensive People, and Oates takes her role seriously as searching for ways of surviving within the flux of modern America. At times … she moves vigorously towards postcontemporary fictionists like Robert Coover or Donald Barthelme, but even in such stories, "the social and moral conditions of my generation" are kept consistently in view. Rather waspishly, she criticizes "new fictionists" and "black humorists" for their refusal to "deal with the utterly uncontrollable emotions that determine our lives." (p. 6)

Biographical trivia aside, there is a real sense in which, in Oates's words, "all art is autobiographical." It is initially the record of an artist's psychic experience, an attempt to explain something to himself. Just as in her novels and stories the "real" Detroit becomes "transparent" in her imaginative X ray of the felt experience of living there, so her everyday life as woman, writer, wife, professor, or housewife, provides only a superstructure of a literary personality: quiet, passive, yet fiercely creative, crystallizing not (or not only) her own but her era's deepest, most tangled, obsessions…. We can see that there is an explorative unity in Oates's work; despite its surface variety, like D. H. Lawrence's, the diversity of her writing is already forming itself into what we might term an emotional autobiography, although one that is hardly a mirror of the surfaces of her own life. Looking at obvious affinities, we can set her early writing in a realist tradition, then note the frequent flirtation with the antirealists or fabulators in the late sixties, and see her, in the seventies, taking up a cautiously experimental but hardly avant-garde place in the contemporary city of words. (pp. 8-9)

But a more interesting means of defining the importance and power of her fiction can be achieved by a less academically predictable route. Oates's fictional mode, more than most novelists', has developed as a distinctive state of feeling thrust at her reader. Some of the most compelling writing in contemporary fiction, her stories force upon readers an often frightening sense of our own fears, obsessions, and drives. Indeed, her work operates in terms best described by that increasingly fashionable motif in contemporary fictional theory, the notion of the "implied reader."…

[In] Oates's fiction we have a vivid example of how a writer must rely heavily on the emotional cooperation of the reader. Her geographical landscapes evoke our own emotional or moral dilemmas and allegiances and in reading her we attend not so much to the shifts of plot or scene but to our own changing emotional reactions. (p. 9)

In order for her novels, to use D. H. Lawrence's phrase, to "inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness," Oates's fiction plunges us into a distinctively felt atmosphere. All the novels are similarly structured, often as triptychs (with an occasional summary addendum, as in Do With Me What You Will), usually concentrating on three phases of a central character's growth to self-awareness. The underlying pattern of discovery in the novels is evoked by the charisma of emotional extremism: actions seem inevitably violent, speech is ejaculative and hostile, underlying fears constantly burst through the surface of the action. Oates's typical imagery reinforces this extremism: imprisonment, shattering glass, bursting and breaking, explosions dominate the emotional field of the action…. As Phyllis Grosskurth points out, crazy is a favorite word in the novels, and all of Oates's important characters live just on the boundaries of sanity as they clutch and claw at the possibility of momentary order in the flux of their lives. Her intention is partly to achieve a shock of emotional extremism which will involve both attention and recognition in the reader's experience…. The form, or formlessness, of her work, then, is deliberately perspectival as we, her readers, are driven to create the form, or formlessness, of our own lives and our own private fictions…. (p. 11)

[There] is also in Oates's fictional world something of what she perceives in Lawrence's poetry, where one finds "literally everything: beauty, waste, 'flocculent ash,' the ego in a state of rapture and in a state of nausea, a diverse streaming of chaos and cunning."… In Oates's novels such chaos is invariably situated in the emotions, in the convulsive eruption of obsessive feeling, in the pain, anguish, distraught embarrassment, and violence of the personality…. Our understanding of Oates's fiction depends on our sensing how the "meaning" … is as much in the voice as in the words: the reader is asked to respond to an unusual extent to mood, timbre, and modulation of voice. We may, of course, be nauseated, appalled, fearful, and hostile. But once seized by that voice, we cannot choose but listen, and to submit to Oates's world is to enter a realm of psychic violence potentially disturbing to any sensitive reader. Oates has an unusual ability to bring out the reader's own hidden fears and psychic nightmares…. The real "events" by which Oates's characters are motivated lie deep within the protean chaos of the personality, and her readers are directed back into the depths of their own inner worlds, perhaps to encounter chaos there. (pp. 11-12)

Oates's fiction can be tellingly approached through a Lawrentian perspective. Her brilliant account of Lawrence's poetry—surely, despite its brevity, one of the most suggestive pieces of Lawrence criticism in recent decades—speaks of him in terms that strangely reverberate upon her own approach to the artist's role…. Fascination with flux, with art as prophecy, with the therapeutic exposure of the self—these central Lawrentian motifs are fused and re-created in Oates's work. (pp. 12-13)

It is because of the seriousness with which Oates takes the novelist's role as prophet that we might judge her by Lawrence's understanding of "morality" rather than by purely aesthetic criteria, or within the conventional formal terms of fiction…. His argument was that only the novel could express its reader's deep awareness of the age's perspectival relativism…. Only the novel, the bright book of life, could reflect and direct the dynamism of the age. (pp. 14-15)

[It] is above all the novelist's responsibility to "re-create and reinterpret the world," to provide, even though forced to employ the slipperiness of words, the impetus towards what Lawrence called "the Deed of life." Paradoxically, even tragically, the writer " is committed to re-creating the world through language…. The use of language is all we have to put against death and silence." The destiny of the novelist is therefore to simultaneously subject himself to and evoke for us the chaos within, exorcising and exhorting at once, providing the reader, one would hope, with the challenge of a profound waking dream. Our dreams offer to show us the deepest...

(The entire section is 3627 words.)

John Gardner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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…....

(The entire section is 982 words.)

John Leonard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 466 words.)

John Calvin Batchelor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Russell Banks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

David Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 163 words.)

Robert Kiely

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 378 words.)