“I never change, I simply become more myself.” - Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Solstice’
In love there are two things – bodies and words. – Joyce Carol Oates
Today I’m writing about Joyce Carol Oates. No matter how infuriated I’ve gotten in the past over one or another of her novels or stories, I keep coming back to her. I find her work to be annoying in the very best sense of the word.
I love Joyce Carol Oates or at least her writing. I suppose that makes me some kind of masochist as Oates often is pretty mean in her depiction of the male characters in her fiction. They are not all ax murderers or child molesters, but some of them are, and many of her male characters are creepy on some other level.
The fact that I love Oates’ writing does not keep me from hating her books occasionally. “We Were the Mulvaneys” is about a perfect family until the daughter gets drunk at a party and is raped. This terrible act is the beginning of the destruction of the Mulvaney family. For hundreds of pages we see this perfect family unraveling as a result of this one horrible act. I found all this sad and overwrought and obsessive, even though it probably was accurate. Perhaps I didn’t like “We Were the Mulvaneys”, because I didn’t like what happened to this family. Maybe this fiction was too powerful, too honest for me.
In 1966, Oates wrote a story called “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”. It is the story of a young male drifter who drives around in his car trying to pick up girls living in remote farm houses. It is supposedly based on the true story of a Tucson, Arizona serial killer. Later it was made into an excellent movie, “Smooth Talk”. starring Treat Williams and Laura Dern. This story is menacing in the extreme. Joyce Carol Oates dedicated the story to Bob Dylan. This is a strange story to dedicate to him. About 15 years ago, I tried to figure out why this story in particular was dedicated to Bob Dylan. There was one obscure site on the Internet at that time which said the story was dedicated to him, because Oates disapproved of Dylan’s several casual relationships with young women. Today when I research that same question no mention of that previous reason can be found. Today we find the real reason Oates dedicated the story to Bob Dylan is because she was mightily impressed and inspired by the Dylan song ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”.
My first experience with Oates was reading her early novel ‘them’. I immediately saw that Oates was a tougher, meaner, more direct writer than other woman novelists at that time. Over the years I’ve read many fine novels by this extremely prolific writer with whom hardly any of us readers can keep up. Here are a few that I’ve especially liked: “Wonderland”, “Marya: A Life”, “You Must Remember This”, “I’ll Take You There”. Joyce Carol Oates is also about the best short story writer around. If you want a quick jolt, read one of stories.
One thing that Oates is known for is bringing her personal obsessions into her fiction, and one of her obsessions is men’s mistreatment of women. That gives her a lot of material to work with. Whether it is a man being psychologically dismissive of a woman’s personality or a man being psychotically violent toward women, you will find them in Joyce Carol Oates’ fiction. Her obsessions bring an intensity to her writing that is missing from other authors.
I will be reviewing her new book “Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong” in the upcoming days.