(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.
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 really is.
She has, in some of her later works, 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. 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.