- The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates
Fourth Estate, 307 pp, £16.99, January 2004, ISBN 0 00 717077 7
Joyce Carol Oates is fascinated by the seedy corners of American life. Her recent novels are narrated by orphans, mutilated girls, the abused, the impoverished, celebrities destroyed by fame, children from families destroyed by rape. Oates’s books often open with a riddling exposition which implies a hidden trauma. We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) begins: ‘No one would be able to name what had happened, not even Marianne Mulvaney to whom it had happened.’ ‘Lover’, from Faithless: Tales of Transgression (2001): ‘You won’t know me, won’t see my face. Unless you see my face. And then it will be too late.’ Middle Age: A Romance (2001): ‘You leave home one afternoon, you never return as yourself. Leaving home, you don’t anticipate not returning as yourself. The home you’ve left ceases to be a home once you’ve left. If you fail to return.’ Oates’s brittle narrators find themselves overwhelmed by events, plunged into solitary desperation. ‘And now how lonely. How alone, and how lonely . . . I felt such acute loneliness, the physical shock and panic of loneliness, I could not bear to be by myself,’ the narrator of I’ll Take You There (2002) writes. Oates’s Marilyn Monroe, the heroine of Blonde (2000), was a study in confused frailty, a woman longing for love, entertaining intellectual ambitions no one took seriously, teetering on too-high heels, in too-tight dresses, slowly stripped bare for the reader. Her narrators are open and conspiratorial, ‘sharing their pain’ like a support group of Molly Blooms.
This intensely confessional style seems to pour from Oates’s pen. It has great advantages, lending dynamism to the prose, tussling a reader into the plot. And it shifts copies: We Were the Mulvaneys was endorsed by Oprah. Trauma narration is a popular genre, especially on TV. It’s not just Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer: Friends or Frasier or Sex and the City or Will and Grace supply comforting fodder for Friday-night viewing – recognisable types, recognisable low-level traumas (couple angst, single angst, sex angst). The question is whether Oates’s variant of the trauma style constitutes significant writing. Do these stories of rampant grief say something about American society, or do they merely wallow in the sensational psychobabble of adversity?
Oates is a writer of substantial reputation, the recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award in the US. She has been compared to Roth, Bellow and Updike, with whom she shares a loosely generational sense of the significant, a list in which Vietnam, postwar Communist trials, the coming to consciousness of the Jewish community in the US, the assassination of Kennedy and sexual liberation loom large. But unlike Roth or Bellow, Oates doesn’t insist on an intellectual canon, or place her characters among a cultural elite: Bellow signals a protagonist’s status by listing his contacts (‘Conrad Aiken praised him, T.S. Eliot took favourable notice of his poems, and even Yvor Winters had a good word to say for him’ – Humboldt’s Gift); Roth often writes as a fictionalised version of himself, an internationally recognised writer approached by characters who want him to write about them. Oates’s novels, by contrast, tend to describe less exalted surroundings, and rely on attracting readers by the characters’ background or the compelling nature of their circumstances. One glaring difference is the male writers’ use of humour: Herzog, Portnoy and Rabbit are bleakly comic characters, played for groans of recognition from readers. Roth or Updike can move from poignancy to porn in a page, from raddled lust to a sense of its abject absurdity (Mickey Sabbath’s self-mocking epitaphs in Sabbath’s Theatre, or most of Rabbit’s antics). Oates’s fictional worlds are too harsh for belly laughs or even wry smiles.