Sunday, October 12, 2014

Cranky Book Review: Haunted by Joyce Carol Oates

(goodreads)

"The subjectivity that is the essence of the human is also the mystery that divides us irrevocably from one another."

Last month I read (and reviewed) Great Books by David Denby. Getting away from the problematic aspects of his main argument, I did find the few glimpses into academic politics to be interesting. It seems to be a strange, insulated world where people, perhaps lacking normal social skills, use internal politics to keep their ideas "in play" and taught in classroom courses. The sort of thing I would chalk up to anti-intellectual conspiracy theories, given the flavor of the book. Except that I've spent years reading Joyce Carol Oates, sometimes quite biting, writing about that very thing.

Those of us who have "grown up" reading her novels know that this wasn't always so. Her first few books deal with the working class existence of people in Detroit. Moving into the 1980s, her main characters would move up into the higher classes, but usually did so at a high emotional cost, often resulting from a great tragedy such as a family murder. Going into the 90s, the novels start concentrating on upper-class New England families, often focusing on the neurotic-isms of the academic culture.

These are themes that work well within the wonderful, vast space of a long novel, but not so much in the short stories collected here. Part of the "grotesque"-ness of the stories here comes from the people who are socially mal-adapted in some way. Without the character development of Marya: A Life, for instance, we end up with oddballs, often academics, who act odd without any discernible reason for doing so, outside of the needs of the plot.

With the abstraction that results from that, many of these stories become exercises in genre. Again, she's done this sort of thing before on a larger scale before; her riffs on classic gothic literature such as A Bloodsmoor Romance are quite funny and reward a deeper, ironic reading. In Haunted, Joyce is riffing more on the Alfred Hitchcock/Daphne Du Maurier 1960s style of suspense. Terrible things are going to happen, but these terrible things are constantly pushed forward in time, leaving the reader to wait for the revelation.

The repetition of this style left me with the impression of an author responding to the politically correct world, but with a different goal in mind, one of shocking the audience into the issues. If there's a connecting theme to these stories outside of the technique, it would be a focus on the inability of women to avoid a fate placed on them by a archaic, patriarchal world. The most effective entries here (such as the wonderfully poetic "Extenuating Circumstances," where every sentence starts with the accusing "Because he...") deal with the horror of not being able to control the results of pregnancy, whether it's having to get a back-alley abortion, being a slave to the resulting baby, or even just trying to get the involved male to be responsible for his actions.

In a way, this is the sort of book that 1990s commentators like Denby were reacting to; stories that are about "social issues," rather than just existing to be read in some timeless fashion. Because of this aspect, the collection does have a certain flavor of that decade, which I did find affected my enjoyment. But, it is interesting to see Joyce work out her themes in this fashion. In particular, Black Water seems to have come out of this time period's involvement with dark suspense (the phrase "black water" actually pops up in some of the stories). For someone who has read a lot of her novels, it's an interesting adjunct to think about, but I wouldn't recommend this to someone who hasn't read her larger works. In many ways, it takes a familiarity with them to make these shorter pieces work, or at least a familiarity with how the culture of the time period felt repressive while preaching liberality.

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