Joyce Carol Oates is queen of prolificacy. She released a collection of gothic horror stories, Give Me Your Heart, to tepid reviews (“there’s little doubt that Oates is a well-practiced storyteller. Too well practiced, perhaps,” wrote the Times Book Review). If unfamiliar, one could be forgiven for wondering if Oates’s reputation – she’s perpetually mentioned during Nobel season, and has thrice been nominated for a Pulitzer – is a result of persistence, rather than work that will endure.
Breaking out of the familiar, though, Oates is also released her first memoir, A Widow’s Story, in February. The book uses the familiar hysteria of Oates’s prose (she’s rarely subtle) to tell the type of story to which her readers are unaccustomed – a deeply personal one, about her grieving after the death of Raymond J. Smith, her late husband.
One of the many horrors of Oates’s grief is the loss of her creativity: viewed through the lens of her tragedy, working seems impossible, and her past work seems unrepeatable. “A shelf of books looks formidable when glimpsed all at once – as if the achievement were all at once, instead of wrought – laboriously, obsessively – through years of effort,” she writes. The shelf is indeed imposing, for reader as well as writer: the sell on Oates has long been the size of her body of work. Her books don’t even contain full bibliography pages, as her complete works would take up too much room. As Oates – who’s surmounted short story, novella, and sprawling novel – takes on a new form, it’s worth looking back to see what of her work will endure. There’s plenty of quality amid the quantity.
A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967)
A Garden of Earthly Delights begins “The Wonderland Quartet,” a series of four novels about class in America. That description of this diffuse series gets at the thematic connective tissue but elides the wonders of A Garden of Earthly Delights’s narrative. The novel is about a young woman, named Clara Walpole, whose mistreatment at the hands of men – most significantly, the vagrant who impregnates and then abandons her – defines her life story. The three sections of the book are even named after the men through whom we see different aspects of Clara: her father Carleton, her paramour Lowry, and her son Swan. (Her husband, Revere, whose wealth determines Clara and Swan’s survival, does not get his own section – the ties of blood and of love for the born-poor Clara are more powerful, even, than marriage.)
A Garden of Earthly Delights, Oates’s second novel, establishes the themes she’d pursue throughout the Wonderland novels and over the course of her career. Nothing about Oates’s treatment of class and her characterization of downtrodden Americans here seems tired, as it occasionally does in recent work (the race parable Black Girl/White Girl, for instance) – her voice here is that of a writer fascinated by powers she is only now discovering.
Consider Oates speaking in Clara’s voice, as the character loses her virginity: “She felt as if she had been opened up and hammered at with a cruelty that made no sense because she could not see what it meant. That logic was secret in Lowry’s body.” Clara is not an intelligent woman, but that unintelligence is compelling: “By and large the characters are mindless people who live in these pages, but ignorance is not bliss and it isn’t folly to be wise; it is folly to be born at all,” wrote the Times upon the book’s release. While the world may be filled with secrets for the “mindless” Clara, Oates’s knowledge of Clara’s inner life – and the contingencies of gender, class, and personal history that define it – reveals that Oates’s mind is razor-sharp.
Black Water (1992)
The tragedies of being female, and unfamiliar with the ways of the world, are plumbed again and again by Oates, whose male characters are often worldly and predatory. She’s been accused of misandry. But her female characters’ situations in novels like A Garden of Earthly Delights and Black Water are so specific, and so convincing, that it’s hard to believe she has an agenda beyond storytelling.
In this Pulitzer-nominated novella, Oates perfected a technique she’d later use to explicate tragic figures like Marilyn Monroe (in Blonde) and JonBenét Ramsey (in My Sister, My Love) – she fictionalizes America’s popular history. Here, Oates tells the story of Senator Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick car accident from the point of view of Kennedy’s tragically killed passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne.
Here called Kelly Kelleher, the protagonist is a painfully earnest and idealistic young woman who’s fascinated by the power of “the Senator” and seems to truly believe he could love her. The novel takes place as a stream-of-consciousness ramble, following repetitive patterns that soon become poetic, as Kelly dies in the sinking car. Never does the novel paint Kelly as a simple victim of just the Senator – she’s a casualty, as we gradually learn, of a society Oates sees as destructive to women, in all its particulars.
Kelly is as weak-willed as Clara is as steely and determined – the Senator merely plucks off a woman whose spirit has been broken by all the men she’s met before. Even dying, Kelly refuses to discredit the Senator: “The black water was her fault, she knew.” The Pulitzer nomination was deserved – this book not only resurrects a story that was then nearly a quarter-century old but reclaims it as the story of American women suffering under the dominion of powerful men. That dominion, whether in popular history or between society’s cracks, has always fascinated Oates, but it’s rarely been demonstrated as well and as succinctly as in Black Water.
We Were the Mulvaneys (1996)
We Were the Mulvaneys, which gained Oates a new readership as part of Oprah’s Book Club, is more expansive than Black Water – it’s bold and epic where the former novel is precise. We Were the Mulvaneys’s sprawl, though, allows Oates the room to dissect that familiar theme – a woman’s oppression at the hands of misunderstanding men. It’s to her credit that Oates makes this seem new.
We Were the Mulvaneys tells the story of the effect a high school student’s rape on prom night has upon the victim’s life and the lives of her entire family. Strangely, Marianne Mulvaney seems to recede from the novel as Oates deals with each family member’s reaction to the incident over the course of many years. Marianne is shipped away, while her brothers alternately choose to excel, dispelling the seeming shame of their family name, and plot revenge against Marianne’s assailant. We Were the Mulvaneys juggles many plotlines – each family member reacts to Marianne’s rape differently. The event is necessarily seen as affecting far more people than its victim, which only oppresses its victim all the more. Marianne is cast off from her family, expelled by her father, as the group metabolizes her rape, a process that never finds its end, though the novel’s conclusion provides just enough hope to keep the novel from becoming wholly and unreadably tragic.
In 1996, Salon wrote: “Oates pulls us gently into the comfortable Mulvaney world. When this world begins to break apart, we fully grasp the extent of the tragedy – and the unsettling fragility of a life that seems at first as solidly anchored as the Mulvaneys’ old farm house.” Simply the “Were” in the book’s title gets at the book’s frightening conclusion – that a family can be ended so easily. For all the emotion it evokes, though, the book gratifies in the understanding it grants its reader: Oates may see the relationship between men and women as impossibly fraught, but it’s a relationship that can, someday, see parity, given titanic leaps of understanding and forgiveness on both sides. This notion is a welcome corrective to anyone familiar with Oates’s work, and a good thing to keep in mind for a reader just beginning to clear Oates’s bookshelf.