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Can't Stop Won't Stop

Oates: optic nerve
illustration: Melinda Beck

The bewildering, incomprehensible power that drives the literary production of Joyce Carol Oates invites comparison to the immense hydroelectric phenomenon of Niagara Falls. A volume of unmatched intelligence, range, and imaginative grace, Uncensored: Views & Re(views) provides an indispensable field guide to Oates's own daunting fictional output as well as to contemporary Anglo-American fiction. Tucked away amid thoughtful and highly readable essays on Sylvia Plath, Muriel Spark, Hilary Mantel, Valerie Martin, and many others are clues to the technical and ethical mysteries of Oates's writing. In a generous account of Michael Connelly's L.A. noir, Oates observes that writing of crime has become "a way of decoding the American soul." Elsewhere, considering Pat Barker's fictions of obsession, she asks: "Is sympathy with violence a kind of complicity with violence? How can one justify a professional fascination with evil?" A kind of ethical neutrality that is itself deeply moral pervades Oates's violent tales, and she says elsewhere in Uncensored that her childhood memories "seem to involve no 'self'—no 'person'—at all," "as if I were an invisible presence, a floating optic nerve, avidly taking in what I saw, making no critical judgment."

Describing the composition of one of her early novels, Oates likens the "white heat" of composition to a fascinating but exhausting waking dream: "The novel-to-be springs into a visionary sort of life like something glimpsed: an immense mosaic, a film moving at a swift pace." Oates's pseudo-nymous thrillers—a sequence of eight books published under the name Rosamond Smith from 1987 onward, and a new set appearing since 2004 under the name Lauren Kelly, of which Blood Mask is the third—have served as laboratories for refining techniques subsequently imported back into the major fictions that, like the thrillers, render physical settings with what Oates calls "oneiric clarity" in order to "[transmit] by way of language a kind of reportage of emotion." Blood Mask (which calls to mind the mood and milieu of Oates's 1985 art-world novel Solstice) opens with the spectacle of a clay bust covered in "a quarter-inch mask of congealed and frozen blood," an impulsive purchase by the narrator Annemarie's beloved aunt Drewe Hildebrand, a gallery owner and patron of the arts who has rescued her awkward working-class niece (father in prison, mother in rehab) in an ambivalent gesture of generosity. At the book's outset, Annemarie has been discovered cowering like a feral animal in the state park, battered and suffering from a drug overdose that has scrambled her memory, while her aunt remains missing, and the fast-paced tale is a powerful piece of female noir.

Like Blood Mask, Missing Mom describes the investigation of a parent figure's murder from the point of view of a bereaved young woman with a sometimes tenuous grasp on reality and a voice of feverish and compelling immediacy, but Missing Mom is also a major novel with the rich texture and emotion characteristic of Oates's big "social" fictions. Fiercely contemporary (and dedicated to the memory of Oates's mother, Carolina, who died in 2003), the book begins on Mother's Day 2004—the last time attractive thirtysomething Nikki Eaton will see her mother, Gwen, alive—and chronicles a year of mourning that transforms Nikki from a "bad" daughter into a fit successor to her mother. At one point Nikki asks the homicide detective assigned to her mom's case whether he believes in evil. "I'm not—what's it—'theological,' " he tells her in response. "That's a total different line of thinking from mine. . . . My thought about guys like [the murderer, a paroled offender whom Gwen hoped to help] is, like Hitler, or some terrorist blowing up innocent people, if they could feel it, the way you or I would feel it, the actual hurt they do to other people, they wouldn't do it. They would not commit their crimes. That, I believe."

The pulp collected in The Female of the Species agreeably traverses the familiar Oates territory of adultery, hauntings, stalkings, and murder with a through-the-looking-glass focus on women's violence against men. In the remarkable "Hunger," the story of a fatal extramarital affair, Kristine and her young daughter watch a pair of old women on a beach at the Cape feed a pack of feral cats, their naked hunger at once an affront to the little girl's innocence and an indictment of human carelessness and cruelty. The image provides a perfect instance of Oates's contention in Uncensored that the literary short story ("distilled, explosively condensed, like good poetry") "ideally moves subtextually as well as on its surface, like a shadowy shape beneath the surface of water, glimpsed but not actually seen." High Lonesome collects 35 stories (11 new ones along with six or seven from each decade from the 1960s to the 1990s), and its only significant flaw lies in its being a selection rather than a complete anthology. Two of the most memorable pieces concern the lives and careers of women writers: Set in the late 1960s, "The Dead" (modest title!) describes several alcohol-and-prescription-drug-fueled years in the career of a teacher and novelist who shares some of the author's own background and personal history, while "My Warszawa: 1980" chronicles a Polish cultural-exchange trip taken by a Sontag-like luminary whose disappointment in her career and her lover threatens to overwhelm her. Oates's achievement is to show us these women from the inside and the outside at the same time, with vivid particularities of time and setting and person called up to demonstrate the absolute necessity—and the impossibility—of using imagination to put ourselves in the place of the other.


Jenny Davidson blogs at Light Reading and teaches at Columbia.


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