Is Joyce Carol Oates a hack? For the best part of her six-decade career, there’s been a lingering suspicion that nobody who publishes as often as she does can have much worth saying. An aura of cheapness, or promiscuity, hangs over her work. Literary value is often synonymous with scarcity, and Oates has never made herself scarce. She made her name in the 1960s and 1970s with four violent, dreamlike novels known as the Wonderland Quartet. The third, them (1969), ended with an account of the Detroit riots of 1967, which Oates witnessed while teaching in the city. Writing in Harper’s in 1971, Alfred Kazin praised her openness to ‘social havoc and turbulence’ and her affinity with the ‘avalanche’ of the times. But five years later, she no longer seemed in touch with the zeitgeist. Hilton Kramer dismissed her novels in Commentary as the product of ‘a completely conventional mind’. His line on her work – it was written too quickly and there was too much of it – has been repeated over the years. Oates’s own position is simple: the more one writes, the better chance one has of producing something worthwhile. ‘It may be the case that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones,’ she told the Paris Review in 1978. You should try, of course, to make every novel as good as it can be – but you have to be prepared to fail.
Failure is never far away in Oates’s fiction. She writes about people who have lost their dignity or their place in the world, or those who never had much to begin with: drifters, strivers, day labourers, night students, gold-diggers, con artists working every angle they can. ‘What I wanted all my life was to be one person, a success of a person, something firm and fixed,’ Maureen says in them, but the prizes of middle-class stability are provisional or out of reach. The books are littered with tabloid crimes, bloody miscarriages, highway accidents, husbands disappearing on the wedding night. Oates is fascinated by the faintly putrescent: the sweat stains under the arms of a cheap jersey dress, the ‘fatty-muscled’ arms of a former athlete. In Blonde (1999), her fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe, she lingers on the actress’s bloodshot eyes, the ‘fatal white striations’ beginning to creep up her dancer’s thighs in the last year of her life, and, barely visible beneath the billowing dress in the Seven Year Itch subway grating shoot, ‘the shadow, just the shadow, of the bleached crotch’.
Oates’s novels are iterative: once you’ve read a few you recognise that they repeat certain elements in different variations. The rivalry between the pretty and the plain daughter in the 1966 story ‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’ is repurposed in Carthage (2014) and again in Night, Sleep, Death, the Stars (2020). In Marya (1986), the closest Oates has come to a Bildungsroman, the priest who dies of cancer is followed by the medieval history professor who dies of a cerebral haemorrhage who is followed by the little magazine editor who dies in a car crash, as if Oates were methodically killing off all her former influences. Her books tend to go on until they have exhausted all the permutations of a particular set-up. Blonde is structured as a set of erotic encounters between Monroe and a series of men identified, either explicitly or implicitly, by capitalised titles: the Foster Father, the High School Teacher, the Police Officer, the Young Husband, the Photographer, the Gemini, the Director, the Ex-Athlete, the Playwright, the President. Oates’s fiction is a theatre of types rather than individuals. The inner lives of her characters are unexceptional and their motives unsophisticated. Her men wear leather boots and her women dirtied wedding dresses. They speak in stock phrases borrowed from classic movies and old songs. ‘I’m your lover, honey,’ the killer tells the pretty fair-haired girl in ‘Where Are You Going’. ‘You don’t know what that is but you will.’
Oates isn’t squeamish about reaching for gimmicks to pad out a scene: Blonde begins with Death as a bike messenger on his way to deliver a fatal package to Monroe’s Brentwood hacienda. If Oates likes a particular word or phrase, she will use it again and again (‘fatty-muscled’ appears in every book of hers I’ve read). In We Were Mulvaneys (1996), the daughter of the family, Marianne, speaks with ‘that radiant high school enthusiasm that ricochets off surfaces, dazzling and feverish and not to be examined closely’. The voice in Oates’s novels often sounds like a teenage girl speaking on the phone: the torrent of words strung together without subordinate clauses, the dramatic pauses, the sentences littered with italics and exclamation marks and idiosyncratic commas.
And then there is her customary technique for building a fictional world, the open-ended list. To read Oates’s novels is to be confronted by every implement in a kitchen, every item in a shopping bag, every storefront in a small town, every cock Monroe sucked on her way to the top (‘it’s always the same, skinny cock or fat cock, short cock or long cock, smooth cock or ropey-veined cock, lard-coloured cock or blood-sausage red cock’). When Oates’s characters are alone, or chatting politely indoors, or idling slowly down Main Street, her prose tends to go flat. She is best in motion. As an action writer she is fluid, pragmatic, precise. In Black Water (1992), her Chappaquiddick novella, Ted Kennedy’s car crash is described in brutal and unerringly paced detail: the car ‘speeding along the unpaved unnamed road, taking the turns in giddy skidding slides’, ‘the wild drunken swings’ of the headlights, the black water ‘alive and purposeful on all sides tugging them down’, the senator forcing his way out of the driver’s side door ‘like a great upright maddened fish’, leaving the girl in the passenger seat clutching his crêpe-soled shoe.
Some of her finest descriptive writing is about boxing, a sport she has watched since her father took her to Golden Gloves fights when she was a child. Oates sees the boxing ring as a site where spontaneity must emerge out of a tightly disciplined structure. Boxing, she points out, is as much about losing as winning. Even the best careers are brief, self-destructive and likely to end in humiliation rather than triumph. Every fight pivots on a ‘moment of visceral horror … when one boxer loses control, cannot maintain his defence, begins to waver, falter, fall back, rock with his opponent’s punches … the moment in which the fight is turned around, and in which an entire career, an entire life, may end’.
The novels depend on similar moments of crisis – after one mask has shattered, before another has settled into place. Oates is interested in what she calls, in an essay on Mike Tyson, ‘the core of impersonality within the carefully nurtured and jealously prized “personality” with which we are identified, by ourselves and others’. The impersonal – another word that recurs across Oates’s novels – can be a source of freedom. In A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967), Clara, the daughter of migrant fruit pickers, meets a handsome drifter who helps her slip sideways into the darkness and become ‘a girl without any name’. Years later, settled, with a child and a man to support her, she is driving down a dusty country road and sees a man who reminds her of the drifter in the doorway of a gas station. They drive to the woods on the edge of town and together sink down to ‘that great dark ocean bed where there were no faces or names but only shadowy bodies you reached out to in order to calm yourself’. When she gets home, the ground beneath her feet is ‘solid and transformed’, and the happiness of her child in her arms feels like her own. Oates takes earthly delights seriously, and understands what they cost. She writes without pity or scorn about the drunk killing himself a bottle at a time, the gambler staking his life savings, the adulterer risking everything in a moment of lust – she knows the risk is part of the appeal.
Oates claims that her first attempts at writing fiction were inspired by an illustrated copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Wonderland in her adult work is a landscape of dive bars, dilapidated racetracks, seedy motels, crummy luncheonettes, second-rate movie houses scented with popcorn and stale plush. The ‘slovenly and beautiful’ canal paths of upstate New York appear in several of her books, as does the fictional Wolf’s Head Lake, ‘a place of surprises and danger’ where men drink and play poker, and fights break out in the long summer twilights. It isn’t a deep lake, but people have drowned there, together and alone.
Many writers quote Flaubert’s advice to be regular and orderly in one’s habits so as to be violent and original in one’s work. But few have taken this dictum as seriously as Oates, who disclosed in her memoir, A Widow’s Story (2011), that over the course of their fifty-year marriage her first husband, Raymond Smith, didn’t read her fiction: he edited her essays and reviews but not her novels. The idea that a writer might use their daily life as a subject seems foreign to her. Last year, Oates caused a minor scandal on social media by tweeting: ‘strange to have come of age reading great novels of ambition, substance, & imagination (Dostoevsky, Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner) & now find yourself praised & acclaimed for wan little husks of “auto fiction” with space between paragraphs to make the book seem longer’. Like most social media sallies, it was a little wild, a little off-the-cuff, but you could see what she was getting at: why write about the petty gripes and trivial hang-ups of characters who resemble their author when you could give your audience their money’s worth?
Oates takes full advantage of the licence afforded by fiction to speak in more than one voice and mean more than one thing. Blonde cuts implacably between romance and realism, between the dream world of the movies and the meat market. Oates does Monroe’s breathless coo but she can do the director, too, and the impersonal eye of the camera, holding the two in equipoise. She does male drag with relish, especially the swaggering, leering, slouch-hatted variety. (John Huston, watching Monroe walk away from her audition for The Asphalt Jungle: ‘Sweet Jesus. Look at the ass on that little girl, will you?’) In the joyfully sleazy What I Lived For (1994), Oates adopts this voice for the duration of a novel, following a local politician and real estate developer over a Memorial Day weekend. Corky bets on a boxing match. He eats something called a Bobby Ray’s Sportsburger loaded with blue cheese, anchovies and salsa: ‘Chewing and swallowing such food you know why you were born, no fucking mystery to it.’ He thinks about his mother. He thinks about his car: ‘the sexiest car he’s ever owned’. He thinks about his lover: ‘the sexiest woman he’s ever been involved with’. During their lunchtime ‘assignation’ his mind drifts to ‘the wide glittering river, the steep sky you could fall and fall into, no end to it … the bright mad tattered sunshine, the wind’.
What’s needed in such moments, Corky thinks, is ‘discipline, a style’. But Oates shows him falling apart, his mind ‘like frothy water swirling down a drain’: ‘He tells himself he has never loved any woman the way he loves this woman and it may be true, all memory of other women has been washed away, obliterated. A tall stark window opening out onto a sky – dazzling light, a blue into which he could fall and fall, weightless, for ever.’ Sustained stream of consciousness is one of the easiest literary modes to get wrong. In the absence of plot, it can lead to meandering; an excess of self-consciousness and it can read like the writer’s self-confessional diary, or decay into listless observational comedy. But Oates stays in control of her writing, while giving the impression that it’s entirely unforced. She never loses momentum or breaks character. What she does is find a rhythm, building it up and up in lengthening ecstatic sentences until it breaks.
Breathe, Oates’s fiftieth novel, begins in a hospital room. The patient is Gerard McManus, a Harvard historian of science. Weeks into an eight-month residency in New Mexico, he developed a ‘harsh dry cough’. At his wife’s insistence, he agreed to see a doctor, but it was too late: within days, he was hooked up to an oxygen tube, hovering between life and death. Isolated in the desert, far from friends and family, husband and wife become strangers to each other and to themselves. The year is 2019 and the disease is cancer, but this is Oates’s Covid novel.
The narrator is Michaela, Gerard’s wife, and the novel is less about his death than about her loss. By the second page Gerard’s cancer has spread from his lungs to his kidneys and urethra. But it’s Michaela whose ‘pride has leaked away like urine through the catheter inserted into the husband’s shrunken stub of a penis’. The point isn’t Gerard’s impotence, it’s hers. Michaela is reserved, sheltered, a second wife. She was still young when he picked her out of the crowd at a piano recital and her own identity has been forged in relation to her husband’s stronger sense of self. They are both writers, but she has ‘just two’ memoirs of her Midwestern childhood to rival his impressive body of work. In better times, she was ‘embraced and buoyed aloft’ by his generous energy, but now, as he comes apart, she does too.
Because the ordeal is primarily a psychological one, the scope of action is limited. The novel takes place in the twilight state between dream and waking. Oates’s narration alternates between a close second person (‘A hand is gripping yours’) and a more distant third to convey the splitting of Michaela’s consciousness under pressure. Melodrama is mingled with medical assessments whose reliability is impossible to ascertain. Under attack from an invisible threat, Michaela erupts into frenzied, pointless motion, sweating, stumbling, gasping for air. Her skin ‘bristles with sensation’, as if the outermost layer has been peeled away. Dazed, punch-drunk, she swings between despair and a ‘wild elation’: ‘he will never die, this will never end. It has gone on for ever, it will not end. I will not let it end.’ At night, she dreams that she is lying on a bed of serpents. Scratches appear on her arms, marks that her own nails were too ‘dull, broken’ to have left. An operation she undergoes to donate bone marrow to her husband leaves no scar. Gerard doesn’t seem to understand that he’s dying, so she can’t understand it either. All she can do is sit by his bed urging him, in desperate italics, to breathe, as if her own life were at stake.
Women in these books often find themselves trapped by an inability to distinguish truth from illusion. As the water fills her lungs, the drowning girl in Black Water clings to her belief that the senator who picked her out of the crowd at a party will come back to save her. ‘She was the girl, she was the one he had chosen’: her story can’t end this way. The Kennedys don’t come off well in Oates’s novels: in Blonde, it is the ‘freckle-faced boy President’ who sends the actress into her fatal tailspin. ‘The fundamental truth of my life, whether in fact it was truth or a burlesque of truth,’ Monroe says, is that ‘when a man wants you, you’re safe.’ But it’s never safe to be singled out by the president. Oates’s subject here is the ambiguous terrain of seduction and betrayal. If there is a tragedy, it is the tragedy of the casting couch. Her Kennedys aren’t heroes or villains but ordinary men, exceptional in their carelessness. They know when to cut their losses: after all, there’s always another girl at another party, always another blonde. ‘There’s only one direction and we can’t be lost,’ the senator tells the girl just before the car goes off the road, and she doesn’t contradict him. To admit his weakness, his failure, would be to admit her own. To step out of character, to make a grab for the wheel, would be to give up the part she is auditioning for. ‘The black water was her fault, she knew,’ she thinks in the final moments of life. ‘You just didn’t want to offend them.’
The subject of Breathe is not grief so much as widowhood. Gerard’s death strips Michaela of the ‘last of all pretensions’: ‘that of being sexually attractive. At least, to someone.’ What happens when you outlive the only role you know how to play? In the hospital, she comforts herself with a final scene, imagining a second honeymoon. The two of them would hold hands and listen to the ‘Ode to Joy’ while looking out at the mountains and the sky. And then her own death with a handful of hoarded pills, an American Liebestod. After Gerard dies, Michaela hears his voice on her answering machine and sees him in the faces of strangers. A pale heap huddled under a eucalyptus tree is her husband. So is the man in the slate-blue baseball cap outside the grief counsellor’s office. At an outdoor café, Michaela becomes aware of a man ‘standing very still’ and staring at her intently from across the crowded plaza. He is older than her husband, with a tattoo on his arm and a ‘sensual mouth’, but this must be another aspect of Gerard, his ‘truest self’. The ‘bright-hued air’ narrows into a tunnel and he begins to lead her towards the outskirts of town.
How do you break a pattern so deeply engrained it feels like fate? Michaela boxes up her things. She drives to the class on memoir she teaches every Thursday, fighting the tug on her steering wheel that urges her leftwards into oncoming traffic. Survival means splitting herself in two, drawing a line between her waking life and her dreams. She feels like an ‘adulteress’, though it’s not clear which self she’s being unfaithful to: perhaps it’s a way of describing the condition of doubleness, of being balanced between irreconcilables. After the last class, she gives a lift to one of her students and accepts his offer to come inside. He is suffering from a long illness, and looking at him she feels a surge of power, as if she could ‘squeeze and squeeze’ his heart in her hand. ‘A tawdry transaction,’ she thinks. ‘He adores you. That is why to your shame you are here.’
But she doesn’t leave. Instead she sits in his living room and thinks about the future. Either his disease will go into remission or it will not. Either he will die quickly or he will die slowly. Either they will draw closer to each other or they will move further away. ‘All this you believe, equally. All possibilities.’ In the weave of his faded Navajo rug, she traces a matrix of branching and intersecting threads and sees how they can be combined in more than one way to make more than one pattern. ‘For all of life is such intersecting, such possibilities. Until, as it passes through possibility, life becomes something other than life, and is called Death.’ A few pages later, waiting for a taxi to the airport, she reads a newspaper account of a lone female hiker who has drowned in a flash flood. One day the body on the ground will be hers. But not yet.