Joyce Carol Oates is a writer of unmeasurable power. She writes blood and fire, searing and gaudy and bright and painful. There is always the sense, no matter how lurid or grotesque or repulsive, that what she has made is true. She is a novelist of seductive and murderous intent, ready to bury the knife in your heart, to pound it further in with each iron-cast line of prose. To read her is an act of frightening intimacy, of purely sexual transmutation. The writer and the reader and, squirming in the middle like a bug on a pin, the character laid bare and cut open and bleeding out their life just for you.
I first encountered her purely accidentally, plucking up from the library shelf a dusty orange thing called Wonderland. The cover was pure sixties/seventies tripe, cheap and flashy and endearing in its bald-faced directness. I turned it over and saw a strange face, a beautiful face. Delicate elfin features, narrow chin. Short black hair, tufted. Deep pooling eyes just a hair askew. I took the book home. I read it. The words melted on the page. I kept turning back to that picture. Staring at it. That strange far-off look, that half-smiling mouth. I loved her. I was her. I saw myself there in her face, her expression. Her words poured into my skull, running over, running out. I felt altered, reshaped. A clay figure, a child. I’ve read her voraciously ever since, though not half so voraciously as she writes.
Oates writes like no one else, with a power unmatched, with a feeling, a swirling rushing overwhelming crushing feeling that seems sometimes more than one can stand.
Wonderland, I eventually learned, was the culminating novel in a series of four, ostensibly titled The Wonderland Quartet. I sought out the other novels slowly, taking them in interspersed with her other work. Those four, however, have a special significance, and stand together as a defining part of Oates’ career and, to take a broader view, of American Literature as a whole. The series, seeming bound only by the loosest of thematic tethers, spans the length and breadth of America, man and woman, child and adult, poor and rich, urban and rural, oppressor and victim. These novels form a tapestry of violence and decay, of the overwhelming power of life. There is a quote so commonly placed in her books that I can withdraw it neatly intact from memory which claims that one could assemble an accurate picture of postwar America using only the works of this one author. I’d go one step further. Oates’ real power is not in her masterful assemblage of history and society, but in her utter command of the mind. Her understanding of and ability to render the exact nuances of human desire is unmatched. She does more than set up a picture perfect American diorama: she makes the dolls come alive, makes them more real than you can believe, makes you wonder which side of the mirror you’re standing on.
The Wonderland Quartet, besides containing some of her best writing, forms a sort of Rosetta Stone for deciphering the rest of her vast oeuvre, unlocking the primal heart beating within all her work. It is, in the end, a perfect introduction to the woman who may well be the greatest writer which America has yet produced.
The Garden of Earthly Delights
This is a difficult book to talk about. While it is one of Oates’ earliest books (her second published novel, released in 1967) the current and “definitive” edition put out in 2002 was heavily edited and revised by the author. Its construction, then, spans nearly the whole of the author’s career, making it something of a bridge between the very earliest and rawest of her writing to it’s most practiced and refined. In essence, it encompasses all of what she has done throughout her life as a writer, standing with one foot firmly placed in her past, and the other in her present.
The book by no means suffers from this tampering, it’s no Frankenstein’s Monster. However, even before I knew about the extensive revisions, I sensed in the story a kind of pull, a tearing at the fabric of the book’s reality. There are moments here which seem too familiar. This is not to say that Oates is copying herself, merely that there is a sort of pronounced musical echo which reverberates down the line from this novel on through the entirety of her work. A common refrain, the signature like a haunting spirit embedded in the underlying structure of the piece. This has the effect, for a frequent reader of Oates’ books, of making the story feel less than fresh. It’s like when Johnny Cash covered Nine Inch Nails. Something of the original is lost, supplanted by it’s offspring. Trent Reznor: “It’s not my song anymore.” Any time one artist take another’s work, it leaves a stain on the original. In this instance, however, the two artists are both Joyce Carol Oates.
I’m of two minds about the whole thing, to be honest. On the one hand, there is something disturbing about an author reaching back into the past to, in essence, corrupt an old work. It seems impure, irreverent somehow. And, thanks in no small part to one George Lucas, we have become deeply aware, as a culture, of the simple fact that artists – like any people – change with time, and that this change is not always for the better. After a certain time, the audience lays claim to the art it has consumed. When the author returns, tampering, asserting ownership, it is to us like seeing a free adult taken in again by their parents, striped and diapered and made to crawl. It feels revolting and unnatural, shameful for all concerned. A reversion of independence.
On the other hand, this revised edition (I’ve never read the uncorrupted original) is a powerful and cohesive work, full of fascinatingly complex characters and intense enthralling plot developments. The story is a fusion of the female gothic and the family epic, two of Oates’ most commonly employed modes. The primary character is Clara Walpole, the child of a migrant worker family scarping along in a state of perpetual poverty. The book is split up into three sections, each named for a male figure in Clara’s life. First father then lover and finally son. Each section could almost be its own book, with its own motifs and themes and story-lines. In a sense, the book reinvents itself twice over, mimicking Clara’s own reinventions. The first two parts are magnificently engaging. The third, however, starts to drag a touch, and doesn’t really pick up until Swan (Clara’s son) is old enough to be an interesting character.
The book ends with one of Oates’ magnificently powerful and disturbing depictions of a violent act, the moment when all the characters feelings boil over. Violence, male violence in particular, is depicted with a subtlety that most writer’s are incapable of achieving. Oates’ gift is that she is able to capture both the destructive force and the hypnotic allure of violence. Brutality and death in her hands takes on a lyrical power, while never loosing sight of the warm blooded horror which exists within the act.
The only real mark against this novel is that it covers a great many themes and situations which Oates would revisit and refine to even greater effect. Nonetheless, A Garden of Earthly Delights succeeds, on the whole, in wildly spectacular fashion, spilling out an epic of simultaneously huge scope and intimate smallness. Sweeping from the lows of abject poverty to the nervous high of wealth, Garden binds up an entire life from birth to death, catching it in all its ephemeral beauty. A flash of light through flawed crystal, bright and brilliant and ever so brief.