- You must remember this by Joyce Carol Oates
Macmillan, 436 pp, £10.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 333 46182 7
- A Case of Knives by Candia McWilliam
Bloomsbury, 266 pp, £12.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 7475 0074 6
- Burning your own by Glenn Patterson
Chatto, 249 pp, £11.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3291 4
The title of Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel is well-chosen, being itself both a fragment of popular culture (‘As time goes by’ seems to be lodged there pretty firmly by now) and an imperative which forces readers towards a confrontation with the very past to which it belongs. Throughout the book, this double-take makes itself felt: the industrial USA of the Fifties is insistently present in Oates’s story of a family going through a more than averagely traumatic 12 years, but present also, beneath the surface, is an awareness of the problematic status of the events as memory, as parts of a history that can continue to influence, or infect, the present. The novel’s Prologue and Epilogue, as well as its three titled parts, are dated by Oates with textbook precision between November 1944 and May 1956, taking in the chilhood and adolescence of Enid Stevick, one of four children of a second-hand furniture salesman from New York State. This history circles around crucial, scarring events in Enid’s life: the sexual abuse from her father’s brother that turns into a dangerous love-affair, a clear-headed and almost successful suicide bid and a hurriedly arranged back-street abortion. Along the road, sisters marry or go brazenly into show business, a brother goes to Korea and comes back disfigured and radical, while Enid’s father buys a television, watches the news, and before long has built an underground nuclear shelter in the backyard. Crime hovers around the edges, in the shady business connections of Enid’s uncle and lover, Felix, and violence is everywhere, whether in the boxing ring of which Uncle Felix is a veteran, the tough neighbourhood where the Stevicks live, the crippling war in Korea, or in the bedroom where Enid and Felix make love. In the world of this novel Oates makes it difficult to forget how comprehensively and disturbingly the fundamental things continue to apply.
Violent emotional trauma is to contemporary fiction what high moral seriousness was to that of an earlier age; often it looks like proof that something heavy-duty and difficult is going on; often, too, it can be deceptive. Put more bluntly, violence can be easy for a poor writer to bring off at a certain level, as can indeterminate plots or fragmented and seemingly inconsequential dialogue. Joyce Carol Oates goes well beyond the orthodoxy here, and You must remember this has the feel of the real thing – besides, no writer should be held responsible for her imitators. The story of Enid’s adolescence is written in a straight, almost deadpan manner for which all details seem to weigh equally: as a result, Oates manages to create a totally convincing fictional environment where suffering, however intense, always remains part of the pervasive ordinariness of things. Port Oriskany, in and around which the novel is situated, seems to contain any number of little disasters that run parallel to the Stevick family troubles; Oates continually drops hints, in the flat neighbourhood gossip everywhere around her characters, of other stories that remain untold, themselves vehicles of violence, love and grief. Within the Stevick family itself there are different stories to be hidden or revealed. Besides Enid’s, there is the strange history of her brother Warren, which runs from Korea to betrayed political idealism and an intense but finally betrayed love-affair in Philadelphia; that of her father Lyle, who moves into clearer focus as a frustrated figure of compromised integrity, a romantic whose life refuses to live up to his desires; Felix befriends and sponsors a young boxer who dies brutally in the ring, whilst one of his business associates, who has been upsetting the wrong friends, also comes to a premature end. Around all this a kind of normality persists – or rather, the book suggests, it’s actually in these things that normality resides; Oates’s dispassionate distance and equilibrium – which ought to be distinguished from hard-nosed cynicism or downright pessimism – make for a compelling lesson in mundane history.
For all the careful dating, You must remember this is a relatively formless novel, in this, too, mimicking the unfinished, unfinishable histories in which people live. But the characters do come to resolutions of a kind, getting up from whatever severe battering they have received to start life again, sadder and only a little the wiser. For Enid, there is the prospect of musical success; for her Uncle Felix, after he takes a beating in the back of a bar, a marriage; for Enid’s father Lyle, his first marital sex in decades, in the unlikely surroundings of his by now damp and decaying backyard nuclear bunker. The novel’s slice of the Fifties terminates, then, in qualified positives, but cannot come to any conclusions on its own significance; by the end, the characters are already forgetting past areas of their lives, and with reason. The effort of remembering, Oates seems to imply, is one that the reader has to make imaginatively, leaving behind, in the process, the easy patterns of significance that put the past in tune with the present. All this is potentially uncomfortable, and You must remember this might appear to have a strong line in narrative discomfort, but there is a sense in which Oates fails to bring off this kind of design with complete success. Too often, the narrative voice makes extra sure that the reader does indeed get the point of some incident or other, and the book is never far enough away from the always-to-be-continued crises of some unglamorous soap-opera. The powerful and upsetting story of Enid Stevick is obscured, as is the sense of suffering and helplessness imparted by the book’s most resonant image, a memory experienced on the evening of Enid’s suicide attempt: ‘She remembered a mourning dove the boys had caught in the vacant lot then dosed with gasoline then lit with a match. The bird’s wild wings flapping flying in looping crazy circles, ablaze, its beak opened emitting a terrible shriek. It flew up into the air higher and higher then suddenly fell to the ground.’
Candia McWilliam’s first novel, A Case of Knives, has little room for slices of life: indeed, one of the things which makes it remarkable is the combination of a highly-wrought narrative surface with a self-consciously contrived structure. There’s an epigraph from George Herbert, and it is clear that McWilliam is attempting to bring together intellectual precision, technical ingenuity and unsettling resonance in the manner of some metaphysical poetry. A Case of Knives reveals a studiously intricate writer of involved allegorical fiction, a writer brave enough to ignore a good number of contemporary orthodoxies about down-beat realism. Her plot, however, which is revealed in stages by four principal characters, is just a little too simple to justify the labyrinthine processes of its disclosure, and most readers will solve its few mysteries well before the last character has had his say. Lucas Salik, a famous British heart-surgeon, falls helplessly in love with Hal, a dashing, and apparently aristocratic, estate-agent; to keep his affections, he finds a wife for the young man; in the middle of arranging the wedding, Salik is struck down by a knife-wielding attacker whilst cruising for boys; he recuperates in pastoral happiness with an adoring (and rich) older woman and the intended wife, while elsewhere Hal is exposed as a fraud and a sadist who was himself Salik’s attacker, spurred on by an animal rights fanatic. Any collection of fundamentally unsympathetic characters is liable to lead to trouble, and can encourage, as A Case of Knives demonstrates, an authorial detachment that will seem cold and remote.
Hearts, literal and metaphorical, are everywhere in the novel: Salik’s heart-surgery is accompanied by his own affairs of the heart, while the girl he finds for his adored estate-agent is called Cora, and her daughter Cordelia – when being expertly cut up by his loved attacker, Salik appears to ask him, as Lear did, ‘Pray you undo this button’; broken hearts get mended, sound ones broken. McWilliam is good at conveying the essential creepiness of all this, and her heightened style is appropriate to the carving and cutting-up, of patients, victims or animals, that goes on. Yet in the end the novel comes to seem mandarin, its poise too obviously contrived. All of the characters give their accounts in the most considered language, somewhere between the purplest of prose and the dryest of official reports; sentences that one might actually hear or say seldom get through McWilliam’s style-level. ‘I suspected that she licked men all over with a rough tongue before killing them,’ Cora says about one of the many sinister figures who people the book, ‘and when I saw her little hands, I would think of them laid, immovable leaden velvet, on the neck of some poor white hunter, before she inclined her little neck to begin the imperative neat destruction of her victim.’ A Case of Knives is a first novel which, for all its evident talent and intelligence, feels curiously empty, a treatment without a subject.
Burning your own is set in the late Sixties in a Protestant housing-estate, and its child-hero watches the escalation of sectarian pressures in reaction to events taking place elsewhere in the province: a tense summer ends in the expulsion of a Catholic family from the estate. One son from this family is Francy Hughes, an outlaw figure who lives much of his life on the dump behind the estate in a kind of Boy’s Own UDI, apparently fierce and dangerous, the perfect embodiment of the wild Fenian for the inhabitants of the estate. Between this Francy and Mal, the hero, a friendship is struck up which reveals other sides to both boys’ characters. Patterson explores the consequences of facing the other tribe and finding it both human and vital; the nightmare of the novel lies in the recognition that the community in which it is set is retreating again into the haven of tribalism and isolation. Mal’s breaking of barriers, which is only the natural appetite of a boy for anarchic company, is seen to be in vain as the battle-lines are drawn all around him.
While Patterson’s novel has its faults (there is the occasional outbreak of sentimentality, and the ending substitutes a bang where a whimper might have been more effective), the pattern and detail of the whole have an impressive authority. The sense of claustrophobia, of being caught in the solidarity of savages, is made completely convincing. Of course, the horror of the situation is that these people are not savages, that everything that happens, however terrible or petty, has its own logic, and in conveying this, Patterson’s child’s perspective works particularly well.