The Remarkable and Prolific Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates’ body of work gives new meaning to the word “prolific.” I can’t think of any writer of equivalent literary stature who has written so many books – just this year, besides The Sacrifice, she has a forthcoming thriller called Jack of Spades, about a bestselling writer who hides a dark secret.
She also teaches at Princeton University, and in 2009 she won an award from the National Book Critics Circle for her support of literature; not just her own work but for her support of other writers, particularly young ones. She and her husband founded the Ontario Review and served as its co-editors for many years. She reviews for the New York Review of Books. She is a prodigious reader; in the summer of 2010, asked about her “summer reading,” she listed more than 20 books, everything from Charles Darwin to Anthony Doerr’s short story collection Memory Wall to actor/comedian/novelist Steve Martin’s latest novel (hey, everybody needs to have some fun).
Oates has written so many books – just in the novel category, more than 40! – it’s hard to choose which ones to discuss. She even has two pen names (Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly) that she has used to write suspense novels. So I’m going to pick some that I have personal familiarity with and have won prizes.
One interesting thing about Oates is that, despite having had a relatively happy childhood, she has a persistent interest in violence and terror, as well as the dark side of American culture. One recent novel that draws together all those themes is 2013’s The Accursed, a surreal historical novel populated with characters based on real people, and quite a few unreal ones, including a persistent fellow who may have been the Devil Himself.
The Accursed, which plays out in the very early years of the 20th century, tells the story of a curse on the upper-class Slade family, whose patriarch, a respected preacher, is hiding a dark secret. It’s safe to say that everybody connected to Winslow Slade pays dearly – they are indeed “accursed.” Along the way, the reader meets Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Jack London and a host of other historical characters, though they may not be precisely who they seem.
Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton from 2002 to 2010, and Oates had access to the college archives of his troubled tenure there. Wilson oversaw a huge administrative reform program for the college, but he spent quite a lot of time feuding with one segment of the faculty and felt that some people were out to get him. Oates takes this a lot further in The Accursed. Wilson seems to be teetering into full-blown paranoia and is something of a drug addict (in real life, Wilson was a hypochondriac). There an act of racial violence that is one of the plot lynchpins in The Accursed that foreshadows events in The Sacrifice.
I didn’t exactly LIKE The Accursed but I could not stop reading it. It reminded me of a quote from a review of another Oates novel, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, that summed my feelings: “When all is said and done, when you have contended with the hampering undertow of Joyce Carol Oates’s flaws, there comes a moment when you surrender to the overpowering force of Joyce Carol Oates’s virtues,” wrote Lee Seigel in the New York Times. It was scary! The Devil showed up in a lot of guises, including, I think, a big snake. Not for the faint of heart.
Moving back in time, I want to mention Oates’ National Book Award-winning novel, Them. Published in 1969, it is set in Detroit and covers a time span from the 1930s through the 1960s. Again, Oates looks hard at issues of crime, class violence and racial conflicts. Again, several of the characters are based on real people she knew – Oates said it was partially based on a correspondence she struck up with a working class woman after the woman failed a course Oates had taught.
Another book that features “real” people is her 2007 novel The Gravedigger’s Daughter. In this case the real-life person was Oates’ paternal grandmother Blanche, who lived with Oates’ family when she was growing up. After her grandmother died, Oates learned that Blanche’s father had killed himself, and that Blanche subsequently decided to conceal her Jewish heritage.
So…The Gravedigger’s Daughter is about a Jewish family that flees Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The father, who was a mathematics professor in Germany, can only get work in America as a gravedigger, and his rage and humiliation builds until he commits a terrible act of violence involving a family member. The story follows Rebecca, the eponymous character of The Gravedigger’s Daughter, as she struggles to move beyond her family’s tragic past.
Which brings me to another Oates theme – family. Her 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys, her 24th (!) featured another family – the Mulvaneys.
The Mulvaneys – mom, dad and four children, three sons and a daughter, live on a farm in upstate New York and lead an idyllic life until…wait for it…an act of violence destroys their peace of mind. The daughter is raped by a classmate after a prom, and the father, who can’t bear to contemplate what has happened to her, has her sent away. After this horribly cruel act, the whole family begins to disintegrate.
But this is not an entirely pessimistic book, as Oates follows the family members as they attempt to surmount their past. As with her other books, Oates was criticized in reviews for occasional sloppiness with her prose, but lauded for putting together a story with undeniable emotional power.
This book’s “triumph over adversity” theme resulted in it being made an Oprah pick – Oates was mobbed after the TV appearance with Oprah by grateful fans, who loved her portrayal of a family that falls apart but is mended again, after a fashion.
Finally, I want to mention a 2003 book by Oates called The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art. I still have it on my shelves. Its 12 essays address many aspects of the writing life – I particularly enjoyed the essays that addressed her early life and how it shaped her sensibility as a writer. She is great at the one-line zinger, and here’s one: The novel is the affliction for which only the novel is the cure.