Joyce Carol Oates
The Inner Catastrophe
Joyce Carol Oates' oeuvre is vast, so any generalisation is probably easily countered with another depending which stories and novels one chooses to focus upon. But there is an interest in catastrophe that may remind us a little of Ian McEwan's work or J. M. Coetzee's: the sense in which a terrible event intrudes on a life as we find in McEwan'sThe Child in Time, Saturday and Enduring Love; in Coetzee's Disgrace and Slow Man. Yet Oates' work indicates a crisis waiting to happen as readily as an event that visits us: that there is within us a need for catastrophe, a desire for our existence to be turned inside out as if the outside is an elaborate pretence. In American Appetites, the narrator says that "absolute trust in another human being is an error. We believe, not what is true, but what we wish to perceive as true." In 'Written Interviews' Oates says "there aren't criminal acts but merely acts of necessity; these aren't transgressions, but acts of fulfilment. As Spinoza so eloquently said-'We yearn to persist in our own being.' What is one's hurt, ruin, tragedy is another's expression of his destiny." The catastrophe is within; the trust we cannot have in another resides in the lack of trust others should have in us. When the character in American Appetites muses through the narrator over the question of trust being a human error, this rests on the affair that she has been having; not one her husband has embarked upon.
In an especially fine story, the lengthy 'The Man Who Fought Roland La Starza', we have the first-person narrator wondering about the details of a friend of the family's apparent suicide. Colum Donaghy is a professional boxer who one day accepts a fight for the championship. By the end of the story, we discover he hadn't taken his own life, and was supposed to have lost the match. He fought like hell but had to settle for an unfair draw. He didn't kill himself because he lost the fight, he was killed because he hadn't thrown it. The narrator's father tells her the story on his deathbed, clearly guilty about keeping a secret all these years, and never getting revenge for his friend's murder, but also, as the story throughout makes clear, seeing Colum as a self-destructive figure whose death was a form of suicide. "Colum knew what boxing was! Godamn, he wasn't born yesterday....nobody forced him to sign on for the La Starza fight." Earlier we are told that "always there seemed to be women in Colum's life, so naturally there were misunderstandings. There were complications, crises. There were threats of violence against Colum, and occasional acts of violence." The catastrophe that came because he wouldn't throw a fight with La Starza was a problem within Colum: as if he were destined to end up dead at somebody's hands since he didn't know how to stay out of trouble. In Blonde, Oates' non-fiction novel about Marilyn Monroe, the closer Norma Jeane gets to fame the closer she seems to circle back to her mother's madness. The escape from childhood poverty cannot lead to the happiness she constantly sought, as though the fame she achieved was equally the catastrophe she couldn't avoid. Oates explores the life of a woman who looked for love but couldn't trust herself any more than the men who were besotted by her. She could fall in love with a baseball star and a prominent playwright, but she couldn't stop herself falling in love with others too as a certain loneliness would remain despite the world's adoration. There is suspense in Oates's Blonde not because we don't know what will happen, but precisely because we do, as Monroe's life and Oates' preoccupations meet.
"Do you plot your novels?" Oates was asked, and replied, "I don't think of "hanging" my ideas onto a plot, but rather of discovering the seemingly inevitable plot that is generated by a certain set of characters in relationship to one another; "ideas" arise out of this story as they do in life, but can't be imposed upon it. At least, that is my vision of my own writing." ('Written Interviews') In 'Accomplished Desires', Dorie is a young woman who becomes fascinated by a writer and professor, follows the wife home and in time replaces the wife as his main source of affection, initially as the babysitting mistress, and all the more easily when the wife dies, with Dorie becoming the next woman in the house: the third Mrs Arber. Yet by the end of the story, her accomplished desire leaves her indeterminate and desperate as the story ends with her husband comforting her while she hides up in the attic away from his friends. "She began weeping again, helplessly...she was herself, and that was a fact, a final fact that she would never overcome." In another story, this would be a noirish tale of a younger woman and husband plotting against the wife, but Oates offers a more attenuated tale than that, with the narrative focus shifting to give us a sense not of Mark and Dorie's manipulative ways, but their selfish actions that can contribute to another's collapse. This is character drama rather than melodrama as we watch the wife Barbara fall apart while the affair erodes the marriage. Oates internalises the plot as we investigate the inner catastrophes of three characters rather than relatively external, easily motivated behaviour.
In an intelligently wrong-head article on Madame Bovary at a website called A Student of English, the writer attacks Gustave Flaubert's novel, reckoning that such a respected book would fail various contemporary writing tests. "So, my problem (or one of them anyway) with Flaubert is this: the man cannot construct a scene. The entire novel is told in exposition, or in feeble attempts at scenes that are really very expository. How can you write a novel about love, sex, affairs, the wretchedness of women (if you will) without showing it in the charged, heated, fiery prose of the fully present immediate past tense?" The writer we believe is wrong-headed because she misconstrues on the one hand what fiction is and on the other what literature is. Why do we need necessarily from fiction scenes action, when other art forms like drama and film can do it so well? And is literature distinguishable from other modes of fiction partly because of the interiority the former assumes: the freedom the writer possesses to make the world they create one in which the writer reveals their own perception of the world? This wouldn't be Joyce Carl Oates per se, but some figure between the work and the world, the self that writes. In this sense popular fiction does not have a writer; it possesses a storyteller: someone who tells the story to the reader. Literature, however, would seem to have a writer who approaches the story. Even though the blogger enthusiastically admires Proust, it would seem to us that Proust went much further still than Flaubert in approaching the story he tells, predicating the entire novel of course on the Madeline the narrator tastes and that opens up the problem of time into which narration is poured. The blogger offers a pragmatics of literature that doesn't differentiate between fiction and the literary, maybe assuming no more than that literature is better written, admiring some fine passages of prose from Flaubert like this: "She threw it into the fire. It flared up faster than a dry straw. Then it looked like a red bush in the ashes, slowly disintegrating. She watched it burn. The little cardboard berries burst, the brass wires twisted, the braiding melted; and the shrivelled paper petals fluttered on the grate like black butterflies, then flew up the chimney." Flaubert gets full marks here, especially when he then throws the reader by moving back into exposition and announcing that Emma was pregnant, "which gives us a kick up the pants." What we notice is the importance of the reader over the writer, which is all very well for fiction, but not for literature. One reason why we distinguish between the storyteller and the writer rests on the storyteller having a story to tell that has to be told well: it has to keep the reader's attention. The writer, however, hopes to explore a space that leaves the typical reader largely irrelevant.
We offer the above in the context of Oates since she appears to us to be both a storyteller and a writer; someone for whom we find a tension between a story that leans towards the melodramatic, and the writer who wants to explore a problematic. An overly melodramatic telling would work against the catastrophe of self that she explores, but that doesn't mean she eschews the suspenseful and the procedural that wouldn't be out of place in a detective work. In American Appetites, the wife Glynnis suspects the husband of having an affair. During a drunken fight she falls and ends up in a coma, and in turn dies. This leads to an elaborate courtroom drama that Oates details. "The prosecution had subpoenaed his bank accounts, so the $1,000 check payable to Sigrid Hunt was a matter of public record...a blood alcohol level of .14, when anything above .10 reading is considered legally intoxicated" - were a matter of public record." This is the writer doing their research and offering the details that will make the reader find the story plausible, but if this is where the storytelling gets done it isn't where the writing is evident. This would be an example of writing as we are choosing to couch it. "Denis had explained the breakup as the consequence of "irreconcilable differences". But what on earth does that mean? Ian asked, and Denis merely shrugged, saying, when a woman stops loving you that's that; it's like touching dead meat. And Ian had recoiled from his friend, who had never in their long acquaintance spoken so vulgarly, or in such despair." What we know but Ian doesn't is that Denis was Ian's wife's former lover, and when Denis refers to a woman seeing a man she no longer loves as dead meat he might be talking of his wife, but also about Glynnis's feelings towards him too, and perhaps how his love for one eventually led to the disdain of the other. The writing reveals selves and perspectivizes information.
In a Guardian interview, Oates was asked if J. M. Coetzee's job description of a writer as "a secretary of the invisible" resonated with her. Oates replied: "I'm obviously creating," she counters. "Coetzee is somewhat coy ... A secretary is someone who takes notes, but a novelist has a strong will, and is creating narrative situations, bringing people together, telling a story. It's a very wilful thing, and Coetzee is a very willful person as an artist. There's a will; it should be invisible. No one should really know about it." The phrase 'a secretary of the invisible' comes from Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello and much of the book is taken up with a talk the eponymous character gives about the lives of animals. Costello would hardly be a secretary of the invisible as Oates couches it, but perhaps the invisible doesn't lie in the retreat of the writer from the novel so that the writing becomes transparent, but instead with the writer advancing towards the invisible. Michel Foucault captures this well when discussing Maurice Blanchot. Language "must be directed not toward any inner confirmation - not toward a kind of central, unshakable certitude - but toward an outer bound where it must continually content itself. When language arrives at its own edge, what it finds is not a positivity that contradicts it but the void that will efface it." ('The Thought of the Outside'). This would seem to be the invisible that Coetzee searches out, with Coetzee fascinated by a sort of ethical aporia that resists the pragmatic - beautifully explored at the end of both Elizabeth Costello and Disgrace. In the former, animals are terminated out of love as the central character notes that the head of the animal welfare clinic is trusted. "Animals trust her, and she uses that trust to liquidate them. What is the lesson there?" Near the end of Elizabeth Costello the novelist title character thinks, "If, in the end, she believes in her books themselves more than she believes in that person, it is belief only in the sense that a carpenter believes in a sturdy table or a cooper in a stout barrel. Her books are, she believes, better put together than she is." The work's purpose isn't to imitate life, but to register the void at the core of it, building aspects of our existence on top of the absence. Is this not what Coetzee seeks, and Oates at her most interesting searches out also?
This has nothing to do with whether a work is fictional or factual, whether it makes up names or draws on real ones; it concerns instead the capacity to utilise the world for what cannot be named in it. One reason why too much emphasis on fact obviates the aesthetic is that the fact gives us an assurance about the world that art can call into question. Oates is right when she says "art comes much later in civilization, when you've dealt with other things like poverty and strife" (Guardian), but the consequence of this is also its increasing burden: to suggest not the world as it factually is, but as it fictionally can be. It can show the invisibility of the world, not only its visibility. The invisible is the creative freedom of the visibility out of which it must work. In Blonde, Oates draws on numerous facts about Marilyn Monroe's life, but what fascinates her are the spaces she can make her own. Even someone as famous as Monroe cannot be accessed in her entirety, publically, as though Oates wants to prove that there is always more to say about the famous because the factual is only a dimension of the world that the possible can work within. It can also give Oates the opportunity to turn Monroe too into an Oatesian character, someone for whom the inner catastrophe could lead to immense celebrity, and then on to an early death. Oates' Monroe is always playing catch me up on the terrible childhood she could never escape as the novel offers a fantasy father figure with whom she can never quite make contact.
Partly what makes 'The Man Who Fought Roland La Starza' fascinating is the factual meeting the fictional, with La Starza a well-known heavyweight who fought Rocky Marciano, and the fictional Colum Donaghy. An account of a ten round boxing match between the two fighters, Oates registers her love and knowledge of the sport (she has also written a book On Boxing), but she weaves into this account a suspense much greater than that of the fight itself. Now boxing is one of the most brutal and fundamentally competitive of sports which at the same time is famous for its corruption, with many films from On the Waterfront to Raging Bull registering the moment in a boxer's life when he has to throw a match and pull a punch. It is this combination, so to speak, Oates offers so well as she works through the gladiatorial, the corrupt, the guilty and the mysterious. The manner in which Oates describes the boxing match is close to the factual as she offers details of the fight. "Colum rushes at La Starza, throwing a flurry of punches, as LaStarza moved away, and to the side, raising his arms to ward off the fast pummelling blows, trying to use his jab." But there is also the corruption of the sport that insists Colum has to lose the match. He has been given the chance to get in the ring with La Starza but is not allowed to get the chance to beat him. Oates adds on top of this the guilt as the narrator builds twists on top of twists without reducing the story to the mechanics of their revelation. As we find out that Colum hadn't taken his own life, so his best friend, the dying dad, tells his daughter that Colum was bumped off by the mob, and we witness a man who has lived most of his adult life with the burden of doing nothing about his friend's death.
But then in a final twist, the narrator suggests that the friend's death might have been a certain type of blessing for her father: that perhaps the daughter is Colum's offspring. Looking at a photograph at the end of the story, she says "I was a blond curly-haired little girl in a pink ruffled dress. Both men were holding me so I wouldn't fall. I saw that a stranger, studying this snapshot, the three of us in that long-ago time of June 1950, could not have guessed with certainty how we were related, which man might be the little girl's father." After all, her mother had loved Colum too. Her parents had been engaged twice, with a love affair with Colum in between, and the mother married her father quickly after the relationship between Colum and her mum fell apart. With his best friend dead, the dad gets the daughter to himself even if she might not be his progeny as the story wonders what sort of guilt Patrick Hassler may have felt, feeling somewhere inside himself perhaps happy that his best friend was no longer alive. Did his wife still have feelings for Colum before he died; wasn't Colum always stronger and more charming than Patrick - and there he was possibly the real father of his daughter? If the narrator can look at a photo from when she was a young child and see that Colum could have just as easily have been her father as Patrick, how many other people had seen her growing-up and mused over whether Colum was her dad?
Oates's story is rich in resonance, managing to convey an aspect of ancient tragedy in modern short story form as it utilises both peripiteia and anagnorosis: reversal and recognition. When the narrator discovers that Colum was killed, rather than that he killed himself (a reversal), she has to look again at Colum's life and her dad's in the wake of this new piece of information. As she looks at the photograph she can see that she might be Colum's daughter, an awareness of parentage that hadn't occurred to her before. (Hence, possible recognition) When we quoted Oates saying that she doesn't like hanging her ideas on the plot, it surely rests on the respect she has less for characterisation than the weave that comes out of a complex set of circumstances revealing the subtlety of human behaviour. Who knows if Colum suspected he was the father and didn't acknowledge it out of respect for his friend, because he no longer loved the mother, or didn't want the responsibility of the daughter? Reading the story we can see there are plenty hints suggesting that Colum is her father, and we might feel it is a narrative ruse to prevent the narrator from confronting certain possible truths all the better so the story can retain its tension. "If there were whispers and rumours in Yeoville about who my father truly was. I did not know of them. And if I knew of them by way of my malicious girl cousins, I did not acknowledge them. I never did, and I never will." Oates' story though is a tale of someone whose curiosity meets with denial and the tale generates a tension out of these two conflicting states. By the end of the story she might be finally willing to acknowledge skeletons in the closet as all the main people involved have become skeletons themselves: her father has recently died, her mother died nine years earlier, and Colum many years before that. Oates suggests that the truth is never only an epistemological adventure; it is also an emotional confrontation: there are moments when we can allow the access of harsh truths; other moments when we must repress them.
"I'm interested in how we fashion our personalities out of somewhat selective memory." Oates says. "We forget much. It is both very natural and very normal to forget a good deal. Things that we remember may have a certain cast." (LA Times) The technique of the writer is only as good as the question of being the writer seeks to reveal, which is not quite the same thing as saying a writer has an obligation towards verisimilitude. A writer has a duty towards their own problematic, which might seem artificial from another's perspective. A technique adopted by one writer might seem like a trick; the same approach used by another would be the means by which to access a truth. If we accept that vital to Oates' work is the idea of an inner catastrophe, then we see the denial evident in the narrator in 'The Man Who Fought Roland La Starza' is there because it brings out the catastrophe of the man who might have been her father, someone who couldn't easily face things, and might the same be the case with what is maybe his daughter? It is an error to trust in others indeed, as the remark from American Appetitesbecomes a complex family history in the boxing tale. The narrator wishes to find out the truth, but deny the reality, an impossible paradox that Oates ends on a note of ambiguity. Is Colum really her dad? If by the conclusion we are in little doubt that Colum won a fight that he was supposed to lose and that was scandalously called a draw, and undeniably died at the hands of gangsters, we don't know for sure who the narrator's father was. Yet she seems at least on the point of accepting the possibility it was Colum, with now the older generation dead. When her father was alive perhaps it would have been too difficult to accept because it would have altered the relationship with her dad, but now he is gone, truths can be absorbed more easily. We might also wonder whether truths can become absorbed because of lies exposed: if for years her father kept secret that Colum was murdered rather than took his own life, then what other secrets might he have had? Could the father have even been responsible for the hit? He admits that he paid the mob to protect his business, and the narrator offers the passage: "nothing so disturbs us as another's hatred of us. Our own secret hatreds, how natural they seem. How inevitable."
Seduction and affairs are often evident in Oates's work, but then are they not present in numerous modern American writers' material, from Updike to Cheever, from Yates to Roth? Perhaps, but what Oates suggests well is the catastrophe within such situations - the threat involved or the crisis generated. In 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?' a teenage girl finds herself drawn to a young man whom she comes to realise is quite a few years older, and whose desire to seduce her puts her in a dangerous position as she sees that she has little choice but to succumb to his wishes. An initial boost to her ego looks like it will damage her sense of self as Oates allows seduction to segue into the abusive. Oates acknowledges that there is something in the fifteen-year-old Connie that wants attention, that wants to test her sexual charms, and an aspect of Arnold Friend that pleases her: she likes the way he is dressed and notices small, firm muscles. Again we might think of plot versus character, the catastrophe from without and the catastrophe from within. Oates presents us with a young woman who is nave but not innocent, someone who takes a while to see the magnitude of her situation partly because she likes to flaunt her wares and here is a man keen to buy. This doesn't make her complicit in the rape that might ensue, but it allows Oates to say that in many instances an experience never just happens: there is an aspect of self that draws a person to an event they might have ambivalent feelings towards. Anybody who thinks Connie deserves what she gets is of course reading a different story; yet Oates wants to convey an ambivalence in the character that Connie is entirely entitled to possess and which nevertheless puts her at risk. There is a family dynamic that suggests she doesn't want to be ignored. Her mother keeps on at Connie for her vanity, aware that her own beauty has gone, while her twenty-four-year-old sister is, "plain and chunky", still living at home, in a staid job and who is constantly compared favourably to Connie. Dad works most of the time and when he is home wants to read the paper and go to bed: "He didn't bother talking much to them." Of course, there is nothing catastrophic in this environment, but the catastrophe rests in Connie's irritation and her restless need to be deemed attractive.
When Oates says I don't write about crime per seI never havebut about individuals who may have encountered "crime"violent domestic incidents, in particularthat has affected their lives" (TinHouse), it partly rests on the need to see crime as a secondary question. In American Appetites, 'The Man Who Fought Roland La Starza' and 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? 'a criminal incident takes place. Yet the crime is less important than the incident; the events that surround the crime that are not at all procedural. The sort of things a criminal investigator would be inclined to ignore as being irrelevant to the case are the very things that Oates searches out. They aren't criminal stories but stories of crimes, which is why we emphasise the inner catastrophe. Has a crime taken place in 'Accomplished Desires'? As we have noted, another writer might focus on the noir aspect of a husband and babysitter determine to bump off the wife. In 'Bad Habits, the children of a serial killer try and make sense of their dad's behaviour. In 'The Tryst' a married man can't get enough of his mistress as he sexually desires her body, while the lover can't get this man out of her mind as she eventually tries to kill herself. When he finds her in the bathroom covered in blood he says to himself "what had happened, what was happening, what had this girl done to him?" Was he worried that the affair would now go public if he were to take her to the hospital; might it even rest on the guilt he will start to feel as he pulls away from a woman who cared enough about him, or not enough about herself, to wish to die? There are often offences that aren't always criminal but are offences nevertheless. The father in 'The Man Who Fought Roland LaStarza' might not have killed Colum with his own hands, but he does feel guilty that he didn't do anything to try and avenge his friend's death. The husband in Accomplished Desires might not murder his wife, but her death would be something he could believe he should have on his conscience. If Connie allows herself to be taken advantage of by Arnold Friend in 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?', she will be an innocent punished by her vanity. In a law court she will, of course, be entitled to see Friend as someone who has perpetrated a crime against her, but Oates' nuanced method wants to see that acts often have an inverse culpability. As Birkin says in Lawrence's Women in Love: "it takes two people to make a murder, a murderer and a murderee. And a murderee is a man who is murderable. And a man who is murderable is a man who in a profound, if hidden lust, desires to be murdered." This is a Lawrentian provocation, of course, but one that would seem to interest Oates as well, and if she doesn't write crime fiction this is one reason why. She wants to enquire into the catastrophe within that leads someone to find themselves involved in certain experiences; where culpability becomes a problem of being rather than a criminal incident.
This is just one angle by which to approach an enormous body of work few readers will have tackled in its entirety, but as Oates says herself "productivity is a relative matter. And it's really insignificant: What is ultimately important is a writer's strongest books. It may be the case that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting onesjust as a young writer or poet might have to write hundreds of poems before writing his first significant one." (Paris Review) Our purpose hasn't been at all to read an extensive number of her works; it is more as if we have taken a biopsy: a small amount of tissue to diagnose as best one can. Such an approach has its dangers but only if we are trying to make exhaustive claims instead of propositional ones. A second opinion is always advisable, but if the first coincides with our reading of Oates's work, then that is no more than we would wish.
© Tony McKibbin