Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The amazingness of Joyce Carol Oates, part one

Look elsewhere for commentary about her astounding output--except for this comment about the commentary: what's so funny? Why are so many compelled to make fun of her because she writes an impossible number of books? If they were dreck, okay, sure, joke away. They are anything but.

At her worst, when her fiction is at its slightest, it is slight, I think, only in comparison to her usual very high standard. It's never really bad compared to the vast dreck-loads of bad fiction foisted upon the reading public in this country. At its best ...

At its best, which it is impossibly often -- I mean, come on, the greatest sluggers in baseball only make base hits a minority of their at-bats, most of the time striking out, so why should writers, who, I'd argue, rely on much harder to use body parts, be expected to hit one out of the ballpark every time they step up to the plate (tee hee who ever thought a sports metaphor would find its way onto this blog?), and yet she comes so close impossibly often -- at its best, the work of Joyce Carol Oates is stark raving brilliant.

I'm speaking about her fiction. I've read one book of her short fiction and a few other assorted stories, but mostly novels and novellas, and none of her drama, essays or poetry. What I want to say about her fiction is first of all this. It is unfailingly class-conscious. (By which I don't mean communist, by any means, but more on that in part two.) It is shot through with social-political commentary evidently derived from a pretty clear-eyed vision of the ills and awfulnesses of this society. It takes on, in a way I've never seen with any other white writer in the U.S., the realities of race, nationality, racism in this country. It wades unflinchingly into the ugly muck of the patriarchy, of men, boys, women, girls, the sexes and their relations, sexism, misogyny, so unflinchingly, so courageously I often think as I read some passage that strikes me as a female reader as so real and raw and true, so dead-on in its evocation of life as a woman, courageously because she doesn't hold back, never stops short, plunges forward into the ugliest nastiest muck of it, and by ugly and nasty I mean of course emotionally but I also mean verbally, physically, violently, whatever it takes, without a hint of squeamishness or worry about seemliness or propriety, wherever she has to go to tell the truth there she goes ...

Since I seem to have gotten myself rolling and can't stop on this point, the profound insight about women's lives that is a feature of many of JCO's novels, I might as well move right on to what for me is the apex. Blonde. I've read a lot of books, fiction and non-fiction, about women's lot in this sexist society--hey, I was one of the first women's studies majors at the University of Michigan back in the mid-1970s, and anyway, that dubious credential aside, this whole topic is and has always been central to me, to every aspect of my life--but I have never read a book that expressed so well the depth and dimensions of women's oppression. This is the book that nails it.

Blonde is, forgive me, a bombshell. It is a densely packed portrayal of the subjugation, degradation, subjection, suppression of the female sex in this country--densely packed, and it explodes on contact. Every page is a minefield for the reader. A good friend of mine is currently reading it and she tells me she feels her heart breaking with every sentence she reads. She says she has to stop reading frequently, close the book and do other things, or else she'd fall apart.

In case anyone doesn't know, Blonde is a fictional telling of the life of Marilyn Monroe. Oates imagines herself so deeply into that tragic life that as you read it you feel that every word of it is true, that JCO somehow knows everything about Monroe's thoughts and feelings, what she went through, what she wanted, what was done to her -- and oh brother oh sister, what was done to her! -- that she somehow is Marilyn Monroe! Or at least somehow was for the duration of the writing of this marvel of a novel. Picture that. Dark-haired big-eyed rail-thin wraithlike intellectual Joyce Carol Oates somehow entered so deeply into the blonde zaftig movie star's experience that it's as if she was channeling Monroe's own words, so real, so true, so awfully do they spill through the pages of this book.

Before I read Blonde I had some sympathy for Marilyn Monroe. I certainly saw her life as some sort of cautionary tale and her image as a symbol of what this society wants women to be. I don't think I'd thought deeply about her as a sort of everywoman, yet this is how I've come to think of her since reading Blonde. Marilyn Monroe not as a strange extreme case but rather Marilyn Monroe as the epitome of the female experience in the USofA. Marilyn Monroe as you and me, women. As our sister, believe it or not. Beloved, but far too late for our love to do her or us any good. And the funny thing is, every woman I know who reads this book feels pretty much the same way. Monroe was white, fetishistically white with that insanely platinum-dyed hair, which as the novel title indicates Oates makes much of in the book, but I know Latina and Black women who since reading this book feel powerfully connected to her, identify with her deeply. Monroe was a daughter of the working class, came from poverty, went through great hardship through much of her life, but I know some pretty damned comfortably well-off petit-bourgeois women who tell me they too relate to her, they too feel her since reading Oates' masterpiece. Monroe was mostly straight, famously married I think four or five times, the ultimate girly-girl heterosex symbol, yet here I am, none of the above, and I read this book and I feel so close to her, I feel I understand her so fully, that it's almost as though I've lived the same life she did. How can it be that this famous movie star, a case of sui generis if there ever was one, comes to be seen by so many women as embodying women's experience in this society?

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the wonder, the treasure, the literary genius that is Joyce Carol Oates.