Archive | March, 2014

National Book Award winners, part 23: 1970’s Them, by Joyce Carol Oates.

18 Mar

(These are taking me a bit longer at the moment; I have a lot of writing stuff going on.) 


In 1970, Joyce Carol Oates won the National Book Award for her scathing critique of American morality, Them.

Oates is a whirlwind in American letters. Prolific isn’t the word. She stands with a handful of other authors—John Updike, Philip Roth, Philip K. Dick, Jim Harrison—with her immense, absurd output of quality novels. She’s written over forty novels, as well as poetry, non-fiction, even some children’s books and plays. She’s erudite, clever, and fierce.

Her novels often deal with characters drifting into petty crime and extreme violence. She sees the world as a drastic, scary place, a great masher, and everyone in it is capable of despicable acts.


Them is no exception. It follows two generations in a family of hard-luck losers, and their inability to find anything even resembling happiness through the normal channels of American success and prosperity. The book begins with Loretta, her out of wedlock child and her loveless marriage to cover up her infidelities. There’s a murder, too.

The unattended baby carriage says it all.

The unattended baby carriage says it all.

Oates fills out her characters with a fast-moving, sensational scaffold of details that is fabulous to read if also a bit overwhelming. Here’s a taste, of teenaged Loretta thinking of her brother, Brock:

When he left she had wandered back to her room to check her appearance. Perspiration had gathered in little beads on her forehead—she hated that. She dabbed them off with a handkerchief. Thinking about Brock got no one anywhere, she knew that; he’d been in and out of Children’s Court years ago and he’d been picked up and kept overnight in jail many times; it had no effect on him either to make him wiser or shrewder, and other people’s thinking about him had no effect either. What he liked best was to sit and read newspapers and let the papers fall to the floor when he was finished with them. But he never talked about what he read, never said anything. He had secrets. With his stupid friends he could bellow and snicker like any idiot, but that was a disguise too, they didn’t know him and nobody knew him, and consequently nobody exactly trusted him. Loretta pushed him out of her mind and leaned closer to the mirror, so close that her breath made a fine film on it, and the image that stared back at her with watchful, expectant eyes was the only subject of interest to her soul.

Was her face beautiful?


Loretta moves in with her in-laws and when her husband goes off to Korea she ends up in Detroit.

Here the novel switches to her son, Jules, as he is growing up in the quickly decaying Detroit slums, and her two daughters, crazy Bobby and sensible Maureen.

The novel careens. Forward, ever forward. The kids grow up, Loretta gets older. Things fall apart. The whole thing reads like some savage socialist melodrama, only Oates’s prose is electric. She places her characters in jittery, anxious, stuttery scenes. They are wounded people stumbling through a bruising world. Loretta’s children are beaten, raped, abandoned, experimented on. They are humiliated, driven to wild self-loathing and self-destruction. The good parts are crushed out of them.

There’s a section, in the middle of the novel, where Maureen writes one of her ex-professors, a woman named Joyce Carol Oates—a fictional version of the author, although both taught at a university in Detroit—a series of hateful, caustic letters. It is a disquieting, ruinous salvo from a damaged soul. Maureen has experienced a series of horrifying catastrophes, and enrolling in night courses for college she tries to put her life back together. Oates, in the novel, fails her. This failure sends Maureen out of college and back into a freefall. Maureen writes the fictional Oates:


My body is like the body of an animal, or one of those things that are just one cell, very tiny, that keeps everything in them of all their history and are always the same age, I mean in every century, at the time when Christ was alive or right now those things are always the same things . . . . So I came back . . . I finished high school . . . I enrolled in the University of Detroit . . . I came to class, I listened to you, I lay awake nights thinking of how I must not fail, how I must get a C in this course, how I must take hold of myself become like other people. But I did fail anyway, you failed me. . . . I hate you and no one else . . . I hate you and that is the only certain thing in me. Not love for the man I want to marry but hate for you.


Oates’s restless ferocity is evidenced on nearly every page. She writes like someone possessed; there’s excruciating menace in the accumulation of banal details.

There are great characters, intense set pieces, an underlying anger that roils in-between the lines. Great dialogue, too.

Each scene feels sinister, often with no clear reason. Here’s an example, where the adult Maureen is meeting one of her teachers, each hoping (yet wary) to seduce each other:


She crossed her arms shyly. The sleeves of her yellow sweater were pushed up and strained, the cheap wool pulled tight. It crossed his mind that a girl like this, with the same bright pink lipstick and the same sweater, was the kind of girl often found dead in some remote lonely place—there was something permanently doomed about the heart-shaped locked she wore on a thin chain around her neck. It had perhaps belonged to many girls and had been passed down to this one. He could imagine headlines on an inside page in the newspaper and he could imagine lurid pulp-photographs in a detective magazine: here is the shed in which the body was found, here are the “articles of clothing” found two hundred yards away . . .


I love this stuff, but page after page of it is an unsettling experience. The decency in her characters is pounded out of them through poverty, yearning, denied lust, hemmed in social convictions and a never-ending assault of racism, sexism, and classism in the larger culture.

In some ways Them is about how America creates killers out of men and victims out of women. How an absurd morality stifles, creating friction and hypocrisy. How unfair economics birth ghettoes and bust out cities. How the tacky and the simple so often outpunch the beautiful and the complex.

It’s a scathing, riveting, mad as fuck novel about the dense layers of inanity in America. Them has the scope of Dickens but the approach of the Gothic Victorian novels.

I almost loved it. Almost.

But the novel is too damn long. They’re narrative potholes, little asides that don’t go anywhere, some of the characters leave for no apparent reason and then return. But Oates’s wildness—her irrational unpredictability, her fire and grit and zip—is one of her greatest virtues. Reading her is a rich and varied experience, almost as scary as real life. And reading her is a reminder of how safe and provincial so much of literary fiction[1] really is.

She has, in some of her later works[2], indulged in her tendency towards grotesques. Some of her books are terrible. Oddly, I respect her for this. She holds nothing back. She shoves all her thoughts and beliefs and erudition and current affairs and the sweep of history and binds it all to her formidable will.

Then she moves on.


Them is a very fine novel. It deserves awards. I don’t think it deserved the top award though. She beat out Vonnegut’s fabulous one-for-the-ages novel, Slaughterhouse Five. She also defeated Leonard Gardiner’s superb novel of middling boxers in San Francisco, Fat City. She won over Philip Roth’s hysterical—in both senses of the word—novel of sexual neuroses, Portnoy’s Complaint. And she won over Philip K. Dick’s insane, loved-by-the-French novel of reality run amok, Ubik.

Other good novels came out that year. Leonard Michael’s published Going Places.Frank Herbert, Roger Zelanzy and Jack Vance all published science fiction novels. Elmore Leonard and John McDonald both published crime novels. Ray Bradbury published his middling collection of short stories, I Sing the Body Electric.

Over in England, George McDonald Fraser began his fantastic series of revisionist novels with Flashman[3]. Michael Moorcock published his greatest science fiction novel of sacrilege, Behold the Man. Graham Greene and John Fowles both published novels.

And around the world, Gunter Grass, V.S. Naipaul, Yukio Mishima, Manuel Puig and Mario Vargas Llosa all published fiction.

Them isn’t the best of the lot, but it deserves to be read. So does Oates. I’m already slotting some of her other novels into my ever-expanding reading queue.

[1] And if you haven’t learned this about me yet, I’m an inveterate snob.

[2] I haven’t read much of Oates, but considering her oeuvre, who has? I plan to read more.

[3] Whoever you are, you must read this.

Interlude 3: Red Riding plus Alan Moore plus Cormac McCarthy equals True Detective.

11 Mar

(Here there be spoilers)

  1. True Detective was/is brilliant. I loved it.
  2. But boy, does it borrow and borrow and borrow. From the Red Riding trilogy, from southern gothic and crime fiction, and most notably, from Alan Moore.
  3. The last lines of the last episode—and the ultimate point of the show—were cribbed directly from Top Ten, Issue number 8. (The page is below.)
  4. Carcossa and the King in Yellow—Alan Moore connects these dots, folding in Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and Robert Chambers, among others—in his fabulous, and fabulously disturbing, The Neonomicon. Moore uses these references to make his metaphorical point, that language is a virus, and infects everything with its usage.
  5. Language is flawed, full of gaps, incomplete, imperfect.
  6. The only way we can understand reality is through language.
  7. Therefore reality is flawed, imperfect and incomplete.
  8. This tautology highlights True Detective’s underlying view of knowledge and knowing. Our mechanisms for understanding are inextricably bonded onto imprecise machinery.
  9. Put another way, we can never know anything absolutely.
  10. Put another way, the language we’re forced to use to describe and categorize something to understand it impedes our understanding.
  11. Put yet another way, how we look at something affects what we’re seeing. (It’s Heisenberg, baby!)
  12. Language as a violent virus; Alan Moore channeling William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick.
  13. Comics is a language.
  14. Film is a language.
  15. Therefore, right?
  16. The biggest visual influence on True Detective is the Red Riding trilogy.
  17. Both deal with abused children and murdered women, police corruption and cover-ups, moneyed powerful doing what they want.
  18. Red Riding is dark, tormented. A dreary existentialism—poisoned by the casual nihilism of the late-stage decadence of our current age—manifests as urban decay, dark clouds, weird lighting, long takes and haggard, haunted faces.
  19. The most disturbing thing about Red Riding is that it’s loosely based on a real case.
  20. True Detective uses Riding’s visual scheme, only replacing the urban decay with rural dilapidation. I kept thinking the directors were the same. (They’re not.)
  21. The most troubling aspect of True Detective is that the particulars of the crime are based on a real case.
  22. Reality as cosmic horror.
  23. Detective’s ominous, horrifying commentary about time, personality, free will and fate are most applicable to the show itself.
  24. True Detective, the show, is a flat circle.
  25. Put another way, the characters in the show are locked into their actions, ad infinitum. As Cohl says, everything will happen again and again. None of them have free will.
  26. Put yet another way, in the universe of True Detective, all time is happening at once. Cohl is being stabbed. Russ is slapping his daughter. Cohl is cutting a beer can with a hunting knife. All of these things are happening right now.
  27. And, yet, they aren’t happening at all.
  28. The central image of the last episode is a black hole that isn’t real. This is the perfect capstone for a show that has space/time collapse as one of its central themes.
  29. Nothing is real. Therefore all is permitted.
  30. Fiction as the worm ouroboros, swallowing its own tail.
  31. Fiction as a black hole, bending all other fiction into it.
  32. H.P. Lovecraft read Robert Chambers who read Ambrose Bierce who read Poe. Each incorporated elements of the man who came before. Everyone read Lovecraft.
  33. Fiction as not so noble lineage.
  34. The best of Southern gothic—The Inkling by Fred Chappell; Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews; Child of God by Cormac McCarthy; Dagon by Fred Chappell; Carson McCullers and Joe Lansdale and Barry Hannah and Flannery O’Connor and William Gay; the films Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and Angelheart.
  35. No, no, a thousand times no to Emily Nussbaum’s review. She. Misses. The. Point.
  36. And yet, her wrap-up on the finale is just about dead-on. The ending is disappointing, moving the show into conventional and, well, predictable storytelling. Nussbaum sees, correctly, that the show has less content than style.


A page from Alan Moore, one of the biggest influences on True Detective.

A page from Alan Moore, one of the biggest influences on True Detective.

  1. True Detective’s logic is rooted in procedurals. The ending satisfies the needs of the genre, not the needs of the show. The true ending would have Cohl and Hart never get any closer to the killer, just slide through the same clues over and over. Like one of those spirals, that adorns most of the victims. They would strive and strive and strive and never get anywhere.
  2. Vladimir and Estragon on the case.
  3. As bleak and complex as Detective is, our world is much bleaker, much more complicated. Our world is a labyrinth, only the labyrinth has no exit, no minotaur at its center. Crime fiction provides a structure for us to sublimate this terrifying fact.
  4. Put another way, our world is chaotic while appearing ordered. True Detective is ordered while appearing chaotic.
  5. The lessons of Watchmen and Pulp Fiction, among others, operate here, too: how we experience something is more important than how it actually happened.
  6. Questions remain. Who is the naked man in the gas mask?
  7. Why does Ledoux say, “Black stars”?
  8. Why does Hart’s daughter draw pictures that are eerily similar to the cabal of murderous pedophiles?
  9. What is Cohl building with his beer can cutouts? (Is it the scene from the video?)
  10. Who killed that dude in the prison? And why?
  11. A few more odds and ends.
  12. My mom was born near Houma, Louisiana.
  13. I visited Houma throughout my childhood, driving through those swampy lowlands of the Louisiana coast. I don’t have fond memories. There was always something . . . creepy about the land down there. Crawdads everywhere. An electric violence in the air.
  14. After episode 7, I woke up hearing a woman being strangled in my apartment.
  15. Years ago, I wrote two distinct scenes, with two different characters, delivering two separate speeches in two different manuscripts that are almost identical to Cohl’s ramblings. Weird. Pizzolatto and I reverberate with the same influences.
  16. In the comic Animal Man, near the end of his run (issue number 26), Grant Morrison the writer entered the fictional world he had created. Like the Biblical God with Job, Morrison confronted Buddy Baker, refusing to justify his actions. The writer is god of his/her creations, Morrison says. I can do what I want.
  17. Who is the god of True Detective?

Interlude 2: Simone on marriage, death.

2 Mar

(The following occurred after Beth read Simone Beauty and the Beast. Simone started asking about marriage, the word and the concept.)

Simone: You’re in a marriage.

Beth: Yes, because I’m married.

Simone: I’m not in a marriage.

Beth: No, because you’re a kid. But you can get married when you’re grown up, if you want.

Simone: I don’t want to grow up. I just want to stay a kid.

Beth: Why?

Simone: I don’t want to die. I don’t like dying. Dying is boring.