Joyce Carol Oates | Critical Review by Sally Robinson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 23 pages of analysis & critique of Joyce Carol Oates.
This section contains 6,887 words
(approx. 23 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Sally Robinson

Critical Review by Sally Robinson

SOURCE: "Heat and Cold: Recent Fiction by Joyce Carol Oates," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 400-14.

In the following review, Robinson surveys the themes and storytelling techniques of The Rise of Life on Earth, I Lock My Door Upon Myself, and Heat and Other Stories, focusing on representations of 'otherness' in her fiction.

To read Joyce Carol Oates is to be placed in the uncomfortably fascinating position of voyeur. From the early novels them and Wonderland to her most recent fiction, Oates has specialized in a narrative technique that intrudes upon the private pains and pleasures—but mostly pains—of Others. Her narratives often explore the dynamics of a voyeurism in which subject and object confront one another across a gulf of social difference. In some cases, the confrontation takes place between characters in the story; in others, Oates stages a confrontation between the reader and the object of that reader's gaze. In her preface to them (1969), Oates thematizes her relation to the underprivileged lives she narrates. Confessing that she has appropriated the story of a former student and, in the process, has become fascinated with the "various sordid and shocking events of slum life," she describes how the intrusion cuts both ways: "Their lives pressed upon mine eerily, so that I began to dream about them instead of about myself, dreaming and redreaming their lives. Because their world was so remote from me it entered me with tremendous power … "In the process of envisioning the "remote" Other, the writer is pressed to confront the security of her own position. While every writer is, in some sense, a voyeur, Oates's fiction foregrounds the political valences of a voyeurism in which a prying observer seeks the "sordid."

Oates's politically charged negotiation of the writer's position vis-à-vis the Others on whom she trains her gaze situates her within the context of postmodernism. While her fondness for realist modes of representation might place her outside the parameters of postmodern fiction as it has generally been theorized, her sustained exploration of the politics of representing Otherness has much in common with a certain contemporary problematic. Oates's work participates in what Linda Hutcheon, in The Politics of Postmodernism, notes as "a general cultural awareness of the existence and power of systems of representation which do not reflect society so much as grant meaning and value within a particular society." Like the postmodern anthropologist who questions the position from which she represents the Others of Western culture, Oates's fiction raises questions about the politics of representations. Such questioning can produce a sharp critique of our assumptions about social positions as guarantors of knowledge, security, and power. But a voyeuristic narrative technique has risks, for it can place the writer (and the reader) in a comfortable position above those whose sad lives seem to compel Oates's attention. Some of those risks become apparent in the short novel The Rise of Life on Earth in which Oates revisits Detroit and the world of them. In sharp contrast, I Lock My Door Upon Myself successfully engages the problems of granting meaning and value to an "alien" life. In Heat and Other Stories, Oates employs a wide range of voices in what I see as a sustained exploration of the connections between narrative perspective and social position.

The Rise of Life on Earth is the story of a young woman named Kathleen whose life is marked by abuse: beat to a pulp by her drunken father, shuffled from one foster home to another, Kathleen dreams of being a nurse. When she tones down her aspirations to become a nurse's aide, Kathleen meets a young intern, Orson Abbot, who uses her body as a passive and inert receptacle—for his semen, his drug-induced fantasies and recollections, his verbal and physical battering. But this is only part of Kathleen's story of abuse, for she is not an "innocent" victim. We learn that she, not her father, has killed her younger sister, that she has set a fatal fire at her foster home, and that she indulges in a series of random murders at the various hospitals and clinics where she works. As if this unrelentingly bleak life pattern is not enough, Oates has Kathleen give herself an abortion—with a surgical knife.

The plot of this story is troubling, but what strikes me as even more troubling is that the narrative voice participates in a de-humanization of Kathleen; placing her beyond the realm of human motive, intention, and even consciousness, the narrator seems as disgusted with Kathleen's "cow-like" physicality as Orson Abbot is. Descriptions of her, from the first page on, paint a subhuman creature:

Kathleen Hennessy with her pie-shaped face, pie-shaped maturing breasts, her pale, plump, soft, seemingly textureless flesh like that of a mollusk pried from its shell … and her recessed eyes that were darkly bright and alert, though betraying no expression; her delicate complexion riddled with tiny pimples like buckshot. There was something unsettlingly adult in her stoic resistance to pain and such extremes of discomfort and physical humiliation she was obliged to bear at the hands of the hospital staff, and something precocious about her small, pert, moist, pink rosebud of a mouth, a miniature mouth, that reminded observers of a part of the female anatomy that is private and should not be exposed to casual eyes.

The image of the mollusk is perfectly appropriate for Kathleen, as is the final comment about the private being exposed to casual eyes, which predicts Orson's reduction of Kathleen to a "cunt." Kathleen is exposed again and again in this story, and nothing much causes her to "betray expression." She has no memory and no volition; even her acts of violence are beyond her conscious control and calculation. She seems the human form sprung out of the non-human muck at the birth of the world, as described in the science textbook from which the story takes its title. As the narrator tells us at the end of the story, Kathleen is to continue life through a "succession of robot-selves."

The narrator's objectification, and de-humanization, of Kathleen is an example of the voyeurism that places the reader above the "sordid" details Oates narrates. This is a painful story, and as I began the last chapter knowing that Kathleen would methodically perform the abortion on herself, I did not want to read on. The novel is not a tract on the importance of safe and legal abortion, for Oates does not moralize here—nor does she give any motivation for Kathleen's action. When, at the end, the narrator tells us that Kathleen does not contest the "price of her freedom," I am left baffled, for "freedom" does not seem to enter into the picture at all. Indeed, Kathleen has treasured the thought of her pregnancy, the only event in her life that prompts any response in Kathleen's consciousness—except for her almost religious devotion to her nursing duties.

My problems with this novel are political rather than aesthetic: Oates's representation of Kathleen so totally objectifies her that it confirms, rather than questions, middle-class attitudes toward the urban poor. The reader of this story becomes fully complicit in this objectification of Kathleen and I see nothing in the story that would prompt a questioning of the narrator's (or reader's) position in relation to her. Aesthetically, this story is admirable for the rich texture of Oates's prose. She deftly captures the kind of trance-like quality of Kathleen's engagement with the world, crafting sentences that unfold and circle, sometimes for pages. The description of Kathleen's response to the hospital's instructions for handwashing procedures conveys a rapture:

Just as years before in an interlude in her life now virtually forgotten Kathleen Hennessy as a child of eleven had come to unexpected bloom in a ward at Children's Hospital so now as a young woman of nineteen did she come to a yet more radiant bloom as a nurse's aide at Detroit Metropolitan Hospital where she was trained in such matters as handwashing procedures which came to fascinate her to the point very nearly of trance as if she believed that such procedures as instructed by her superiors were clues to a fundamental principle of the universe both the human world so difficult to comprehend let alone negotiate and the world beyond the human hitherto wholly incomprehensible, unfathomable thus in a sort of waking trance a small pinched smile on her face eyes lowered as if in tremulous reverence she obeyed every commandment of such matters as handwashing procedures

While a sentence like this might not appeal to all readers, I find it hypnotically rhythmic. But as much as I am carried away by Oates's language here, this virtuoso performance does not shake my uncomfortable feeling that Oates's New Directions audience is being invited to fetishize this entirely alien and utterly frightening life. To fetishize an Other means to see that Other only as a negative reflection of the Self, making difference a confirmation of identity.

I Lock My Door Upon Myself shares with the other novel a hypnotic prose style, but here the story is told through the mediating consciousness of the protagonist's granddaughter, who experiences a complicated identification with her grandmother Calla: "She was my mother's mother but not my grandmother in any terms I can comprehend and if her mad blood courses through me now I have no knowledge of it and am innocent of it." In the process of telling Calla's story, the narrator questions her own role in imagining that story and asks: "how can I speak of that woman let alone speak for her who scarcely knew her?" The narrator's account of Calla's life is punctuated by unanswered questions that all point to the narrator's concern that she is appropriating Calla's story for her own purposes. These questions, in other words, signal the story's exploration of the politics of representation: Who speaks? From what position? In whose interests?

The narrator worries that in speaking for Calla, she is not allowing Calla to speak for herself. As the title of the novel makes clear, Calla is protective of her secret lives and desires, and the narrator is self-conscious about violating those secrets. This novel can be called metafictional in the sense that it explicitly thematizes the problems I have noted in the narrative stance of The Rise of Life on Earth. Published by the Ecco Press in a series of "fictions in imaginative collaboration with works of art," the story's inspiration comes from a painting by the nineteenth-century German artist Fernand Khnopff. It is easy to see why the painting, and especially the title, intrigued Oates. The story she weaves around this painting of a dreamy woman subtly and powerfully explores the gulf between public and private selves—or, more precisely, between a woman's self-representation and the world's representation of her.

This is the story of a woman whose "wildness" is always the object of public scrutiny. Orphaned when young, Calla dreams her way through life until she is asked to marry George Freilicht. She neither consents nor refuses, but seems, instead, to allow herself to be passively carried along on the waves of others' desires. But Calla keeps herself distant from the marriage, her husband, and later her children, continuing to live a private life separate from the public one. Her "nocturnal selves" are more real than her daytime self. To stress this division, Oates gives her protagonist both a public and a private name; she refers to herself as "Calla," while everyone else except the narrator uses her legal name, "Edith." She meets and falls in love with Tyrell Thompson, an itinerant black water diviner, and proceeds to scandalize her family and the community. Significantly, it is only to Tyrell that Calla tells her "real" name. The love affair ends in typical Oates fashion, in violence: the two lovers go over a waterfall in a rowboat. Tyrell is killed and Calla locks herself into her room, leaving the house only for funerals, and living out the remainder of her life, fifty-five years, in almost complete solitude.

This story is rich in the tradition of Faulkner: complex psychological dynamics and mysteries become the subject of an awed scrutiny on the part of the narrating consciousness. The narrator merges with Calla, as indicated by the frequent italicized passages that signal a confusion between the two. The most striking of these is repeated several times, and hints at the story's exploration of regions of experience beyond conventional language: "If this is a dream it is not my dream for how should I know the language in which to dream it." Calla's dream and the narrator's dream are one because, as the granddaughter explains, "we are linked by blood and blood is memory without language." The narrator stumbles over describing Calla in conventional terms, noting that such phrases as "unnatural mother" and "white trash" do not get at the heart of what Calla is. In the process of telling the story of Calla's unconventional life, the narrator experiences outrage at others' failure to understand her grandmother: "And that's the insult of it, how always it comes back to a woman being a 'good' mother in the world's eyes or a 'bad' mother, how everything in a woman's life is funneled through her body between her legs."

In the "world's eyes" Calla's complex reality is reduced to her failure to confirm that world's assumptions about what a woman is or should be; her desires, her specificity, and her point of view are denied by an objectifying gaze. It is the difference between the "world's eyes" and the narrator's eyes which suggests that Oates is critiquing the type of narrative perspective she employs in The Rise of Life on Earth. I am not claiming that Oates engages in self-criticism here, nor am I suggesting that I Lock My Door Upon Myself is a better book in the "disinterested" terms of aesthetic evaluation, for I have little faith in the validity of such terms. What I am arguing is that I Lock My Door Upon Myself effectively comments on what I see as the politically problematic representation in The Rise of Life on Earth of the "unknown" underclasses as subhuman. Whereas Kathleen is positioned as the disempowered object of a knowing and superior gaze, Calla and the narrator merge into a complex double subject of the narrative. I am reminded here of Christa Wolf's The Quest for Christa T, another novel in which a female narrator considers the complex personal and political implications of telling another woman's story.

Voyeurism depends on distance and difference and, thus, can be seen as opposing identification, which works through closeness and the bridging of difference. In The Rise of Life on Earth, the narrative voice probes Kathleen's consciousness from a distance, constructing her as the Other, the "notme." In I Lock My Door Upon Myself, Oates's use of a questioning, fully participating narrator facilitates an identification that bridges the gap between Self and Other. Despite Calla's mystery, then, she is not positioned as alien or Other. In Heat and Other Stories, Oates experiments with a variety of narrative forms and modes of address and, as we've come to expect from Oates, the stories construct many different worlds. The collection is divided into three sections. In the first, Oates trains her lens on the lives of privileged people who confront an otherness imposed on their lives. In the vein of her recent novel American Appetites, these first eight stories sketch a violent underside to lives whose glittering surfaces are fragile. The characters who inhabit these slick worlds hover on the verge of revelation, but never quite get there. While these stories thematize confrontations between self and other, subject and object, security and violence, the narrative tone seems deliberately cold and even indifferent. Whereas the narrative voice in The Rise of Life on Earth is clinical, these narrators appear indifferent toward the lives under scrutiny. While the protagonist of the novel is objectified by the narrator, these characters do not seem to compel Oates's interest enough to be held up as alien or exotic objects. In the second section, where Oates focuses on the lives of America's urban and rural underclasses, the stories have a strikingly different tone. Part of the difference can be accounted for by her use of first-person narration in many of the stories, but I think there is something else going on here. What I see in the contrast between the two sets of stories is a difference in perspective based on social class and position. Working under the reasonable but unprovable assumption that Oates's imagined audience is comprised mainly of middle-class readers, we can come to the tentative conclusion that the characters in the first set of stories are not constructed as Others because they lack "difference." I suspect that, for Oates, these characters are too much like "us" to be the proper objects of a voyeuristic gaze, even if the narrative perspective is distanced from the lives it narrates. Foreclosing on both voyeuristic engagement and identification, these stories thematize, rather than enact, the problematics of storytelling that I am arguing place Oates in a postmodern context. In the third section, Oates moves into more eerie, less "naturalistic" terrain, where the confrontation with Otherness is displaced onto another plane entirely.

In the first story, "House Hunting," Oates offers a metaphor for the dynamics of reading. Joel, the central character, expresses an uncomfortable excitement about entering the lives and homes of others, guided by a woman who has the "key" to them all:

She had the key to every lock; only let her fit it into the door and the door opened and she led her client inside: Mr. Collier, who was made to feel uncharacteristically passive, helpless. He didn't like the feeling. Then again, he did like it; there was something intimate and brazen, heady, as if with the air of the forbidden, about being led by a woman he didn't know into the houses of people he didn't know, escorted through rooms in which strangers lived their secret lives. The first several minutes were the most acute; he felt shy, absurdly ill at ease, excited. As if he was being brought to a test of some kind, a challenge or a riddle, and would not be equal to it.

This is the "challenge" that Oates mounts for her readers in these stories, which all have something of an "air of the forbidden." But Joel, like other characters in the first group of stories, fails to take up the challenge. He searches for meaning in empty houses, seeking to work through his grief over his wife's unsuccessful pregnancy. Imagining that the attic of one particularly decrepit house might be the "place of revelation," he finds, instead, "nothing in this room but the space itself," and the narrator asks: "But what otherwise might there have been? What had he hoped to see?"

Joel's life is without "purpose," and the story ends with his having acquired only the vaguest sense of renewed power and energy through his exploration. "House Hunting" is one of the few stories in Heat which does not culminate in an act of physical violence. "Shopping," one of the best stories, is another. A ritual trip to a high-class suburban mall becomes the occasion for a woman's freeing herself from her tyrannical daughter. Mrs. Dietrich, divorced from her husband and living the life of the wealthy suburban matron, lives through her teenaged daughter Nola, whose birth is the signal event of Mrs. Dietrich's life: "She told no one, but she knew the baby would be a girl. It would be herself again, reborn and this time perfect." Clichéd as this may sound, the story goes far beyond the ordinary in painting Mrs. Dietrich as the conventional woman whose experience becomes, in Oates's subtle tones, unconventional, miraculous, and violent.

The rarified atmosphere of the mall—"the air is fresh and tonic"—reassures Mrs. Dietrich who attempts to keep the immanent violence of her relationship with Nola at bay. The product of her body has betrayed her, and violence erupts. Mrs. Dietrich is forced to confront her separateness from Nola and, in the process, the daughter becomes an alien being:

Seeing Nola now, Mrs. Dietrich is charged with hurt, rage; the injustice of it, she thinks, the cruelty of it, and why, and why? And as Nola glances up, startled, not prepared to see her mother in front of her, their eyes lock for an instant and Mrs. Dietrich stares at her with hatred. Cold calm clear unmistakable hatred. She is thinking, Who are you? What have I to do with you? I don't know you, I don't love you, why should I?

Mrs. Dietrich's sense of "injustice" is purely personal, and does not extend to the bag lady she and Nola see in the mall. Refusing to let this woman's presence detract from the pleasure of "serious shopping," Mrs. Dietrich has no qualms about flaunting her privilege and spending her money. While Mrs. Dietrich fails to analyze the huge gulf between herself and this woman—and Nola spouts some obligatory outrage over the woman while spending over $200 on a designer jacket—the reader is left to contemplate the jarring effect of a contemporary world where Lord & Taylor coexists side-by-side with the disenfranchised. Mrs. Dietrich will return to her suburban home, and Nola to her prep school in Maine, neither of them having been much affected by the experience.

Mrs. Dietrich's desire to hide the messy emotional outbursts which end the story links "Shopping" with "Passion." In this story, the main character suffers from lack of passion, a lack brought home to him by his ex-wife's suicide. Dennis might well stand in for the narrative voice in many of these first eight stories, as well as for the characters who fail at naming and understanding their experiences. The lack of language with which to articulate sudden emotional turbulence seems to afflict the privileged characters in all of these stories. Remembering his ex-wife's accusation that he lacks "passion," Dennis associates this lack with a failure of language: "In his professional life he was a man of infinite tact, intelligence, presence; in his private life, he had always seemed to himself mysteriously undefined." A recurring dream strikes Dennis "as an image of his predicament, yet to have defined that predicament, to have given it a precise vocabulary: this was a task seemingly beyond him." Ironically, it is in investigating Rona's suicide that Dennis begins to experience "passion." But this, too, remains "undefined," and the story ends with Dennis tottering on the edge of a revelation, not knowing what to do with that passion: "It frightened him, the emotion he felt—its crudeness, violence. He wondered was it passion. He wondered was it anything to which he might give a name."

In "Knife" and "The Boyfriend," acts of physical violence seem to force the victim to some kind of revelation; but that revelation is so vaguely drawn as to leave the reader with a sense of dissatisfaction. I say this in an analytic rather than judgmental spirit, for Oates seems to purposefully structure these narratives around an anti-climax. In "Knife," Harriet and her daughter Bonnie are home alone, when two men break into the house. Disappointed with the lack of material possessions, one of them rapes Harriet. The two intruders mock Harriet's privilege, the rapist threatening her verbally as well as physically: "'You think you're hot shit, don't you? People like you'." During the attack, Harriet wonders, "Is this rape? This?—as the man pried her legs apart, poked himself against her." Her primary response is shame, humiliation, and worry that the police and her husband will blame her. Finally she decides to tell her husband about the rape—but only because she fears that keeping it inside will turn her "into a religious lunatic." The story ends: "And what would happen, as a consequence, would happen." The narrative voice here seems apathetic, as if Harriet's experience does not qualify as significant. Is it because an experience as violent as rape fails to shake Harriet enough? Is Oates suggesting that Harriet "deserves" the rape, as a punishment for her uninteresting and complacent life? Is violence, for Oates, the only way to find meaning, and then only if one acts violently in return?

Some of these questions find tentative answers in "Naked," one of the most compelling stories of the collection. The story is the proverbial nightmare of naked exposure made real: the unnamed protagonist finds herself completely naked, entirely vulnerable, and miles from her home. Enjoying an afternoon in a "suburban wildlife preserve [!]", the woman is attacked by a vicious group of black children, who take her clothes in what the woman feels is an outrageously unprovoked act of cruelty. Her outrage is accompanied by her shame; she obsessively focuses on avoiding having to make a police report, for she fears appearing as a racist.

The oft-repeated litany, "I am not a racist," punctuates this profound exploration of the woman's subjective and social position. She alternates between thinking of her attackers as "savages" who threaten to "devour her alive: set upon her like ravenous animals, tear the flesh from her bones with their teeth and eat," and thinking that she "deserves" the attack because of "the unwanted but undeniable privilege of her white skin." Oates subtly challenges this woman's secure conviction that she harbors no racist sentiments and, simultaneously, challenges her readers to place themselves in the woman's position.

[S]he was a woman in no way racially prejudiced who had grown up with blacks, gone to school with blacks, Chinese, Hispanics, and other minorities, as they were familiarly called, and she was determined to instill in her children the identical unjudging uncensorious liberalism her parents had quite consciously instilled in her. So it did not strike her, as perhaps it should have, upon occasion at least, that these minorities might look upon her as conspicuously different from themselves and that, against the grain of all that was reasonable, charitable, and just, they might wish to do so and take satisfaction in it.

Underneath this lovely liberalism we glimpse an absolute failure to see beyond a certain point of view—and, perhaps worse, a willed ignorance about the possibility that the "Other" might have a point of view that could be trained on the self. Here, Oates delivers a ringing indictment of a certain self-congratulatory liberalism, but, at the same time, manages to elicit sympathy for the woman who is, after all, the victim of a violent attack. Making her way home through the treacherous terrain hidden behind the clean surfaces of suburbia, the woman "was excited and yet dreamy too: standing for a long purposeless moment staring at the debris of strangers, wondering at lives parallel to her own yet unknown to her." Stripped of the trappings of her "civilized" existence, and forced to face the "wildlife" that infiltrates suburbia, she ponders her own vulnerability. The story transforms this woman from subject into object of a voyeuristic gaze, and Oates stresses the woman's fear that she might function as the raw material for someone else's story: "She would become a story, a fiction."

The second section of Heat challenges the subjective positions articulated in the first: here, the reader enters the idiosyncratically-drawn private worlds of underprivileged folks. In "Heat," two uncannily alike twins are brutally murdered by a man who might or might not be "simpleminded." The narrator is a former classmate of the twins, Rhea and Rhoda, who works to fill in the gaps of the story, to invent the murder because "I wasn't there, but some things you know." This story differs from others in this section, in that the violence remains untold, "the door was shut, the shade on the window was drawn," and the reader joins in the narrator's morbid fascination with inventing the details of the murder. Closed doors and drawn shades are appropriate metaphors for a voyeuristic narrative—not unlike the cinematic technique of that master of voyeurism, Alfred Hitchcock. The grisly details of the murder remain unspoken, but the narrator hints that the crime has a lurid sexual component. This becomes particularly clear when the narrator, years later, thinks back to Rhea and Rhoda while having sex in close proximity to the scene of the murder. Her (and our) voyeuristic fascination with this crime is in sharp contrast to the indifference that marks Oates's representation of Harriet's rape.

A number of the stories in this part of Heat explore the difficulties of the story-teller's position, her precarious relationship to her material. In "The Buck," the narrator confesses to an obsession with the story of an elderly woman who, in trying to save the life of a buck shot by a hunter, dies, her body literally merging with the buck's in a frozen tableau. In intimate relation to her readers, the narrator says: "Each time I tell this story … I think that maybe this telling will make a difference. This time a secret meaning will be revealed, as if without my volition, and I will be released." The meaning the narrator finds is the meaning she creates, in weaving for Melanie Snyder a life marked by sexual and familial repression. Because of the way the story is framed it is clear that Oates is commenting here on the dynamics of storytelling, implicating herself and the reader, as well as her narrator, in a kind of voyeuristic exercise in which Melanie is explicitly framed as the object of a probing gaze.

While the narrator in "The Buck" might be seen as the author's surrogate, Oates plays the part of ventriloquist in "White Trash," a story guaranteed to raise the hackles of a politically sensitive white, middleclass reader—a reader not unlike the woman in "Naked." Here, we have a first-person narrator, who, despite her direct address of the reader, nevertheless reveals herself to be painfully vulnerable to that reader's gaze. One of four stories in Heat which equivocates over the question of rape versus consensual sex, "White Trash" is the story of another Melanie, a self-styled "white trash" woman who fetishizes a black jazz pianist, Mayweather Smith. The story virtually drips with the erotic energy of Melanie whose sexuality can only be characterized as masochistic. Referring to herself as both "I" and "Melanie," the narrator is split between subject and object, a split that seems entirely appropriate to her experiences. Watching and listening to Mayweather, Melanie plots his seduction, "thinking, Mmmmm, Melanie, you're the luckiest woman alive." As a backdrop to the present action, which includes a sexual encounter through which Mayweather appears to take out his resentment of white supremacy on the pathetic target of Melanie's skinny body, Melanie relates a tale of abuse at the hands of various (white) lovers and an uncaring medical establishment. The two trade stories about injustices in the world, Melanie's about the loss of a baby and Mayweather's about his baby brother killed by white police on the streets of Cleveland. No sentimentalist, however, Oates does not allow these characters to find an artificial solace in each other's arms. The sexual encounter is violent and unsettling in its depiction of racial and sexual dynamics—unsettling, precisely, to the reader whose voyeuristic gaze witnesses the event and is denied an easy answer to the questions the story raises.

The stories in Heat are unrelentingly violent. In "Sundays in Summer," a young boy jumps off a bridge and is gored by a cable in the water. "Leila Lee" ends with a son frenetically killing his father with an axe. "The Swimmers" contains a shooting, and "Getting to Know All About You" a brutal beating. In "Hostage," a young girl is saved from being molested by an itinerant, who is then repeatedly stabbed by her rescuer. "Yarrow" ends with one cousin mowing down another in his car on an icy road. In "Craps" and "Death Valley," the second appearing to be a retelling of the first, young women are subject to violent sexual attacks by men, and in the second, the man fantasizes about the woman killing him with a razor. Why is Oates so fascinated by violence, so drawn to scenes of blood and carnage? What pleasure does she expect her readers to get from this violence, from a complicity in morbid fascination? I confess that I do not have answers to these questions, except to say that Oates's voyeuristic imagination, like Hitchcock's perhaps, inevitably seeks out the shocking and sordid.

"Getting to Know All About You" provides a breath of fresh air, for here, Oates gives us a welcome touch of humor, despite the story's depiction of a family inches away from disaster. In love with her mother Trix, the narrator lovingly renders that mother's idiosyncratic speech. Judith is an intelligent, alienated adolescent girl, whose narration of her family's deterioration is haunted by her sense of guilt over "spying" on her colorful parents. Her brother Wesley speaks of the "politics of this family," epitomized by the disproportion of "before" and "after" photographs in the family album—before the children's births and after. (Trix refuses to be called "Mother," claiming that it's an "absurd definition.") Oates gives her readers a voyeuristic look into this "dysfunctional" family, the story's humor punctuated with the pathos of an impossible dream. The seemingly invincible Trix—who refers to turning thirty as "peeking over the edge into the abyss," and insists that drinking alone is "like, you know, making love alone. It lacks class"—regales the reader with her rich language and her indomitable spirit. But, lest the reader forget that this is an Oates story, Trix ends up in the state mental hospital and Darrell on the lam from the police. If Judith and Wesley fear that they have violated the norms of privacy, and even decency, in "spying" on their parents—they blame themselves for what happens to Trix and Darrell—then the reader shares in that fear. This story explicitly comments on the dynamics of voyeurism, suggesting that looking into others' windows, uninvited, might have dire consequences for the object of the gaze.

The stories in the brief last section of Heat signal new territory for Oates, where the ordinary becomes alien and terrifying. These stories, in their exploration of a dark subterranean beneath the veneer of family life, cover the kind of ground that David Lynch investigates in his films. In "Twins" and "Why Don't You Come Live With Me It's Time" Oates again employs the perspective of daughters who inquire into, but do not solve, the riddles of family legend. In the first, the girl's father, Lee, is haunted by his vanished twin brother, Les. Obsessed with finding Les, Lee struggles to maintain an identity separate from his twin, but ends up being eclipsed and destroyed. The daughter-narrator, in her turn, is haunted by her dead father, and ends by wondering: "Is this common? Will it get worse? Is it something you can die of?" "Why Don't You Come Live With Me It's Time," an intriguing and engaging story, begins where "Twins" leaves off, with the narrator seeing her dead grandmother in her mirror. The story represents the grown woman's attempt to differentiate herself from her grandmother. In the process she comes to understand that her grandmother, whom she adores, has a perspective (and life) of her own. This story contains a nightmare-like sequence, in which Claire imagines her grandmother spiking her oatmeal with glass. Claire fears sleep and identifies with her grandmother's insomnia—"but no one made the connection between her and me. Our family was that way: worrying that one weakness might find justification in another and things would slip out of containment and control," not unlike the family in "Getting to Know All About You."

In "Family," a strange tale of a world and a family that has survived some kind of industrial or nuclear disaster, Oates forays into science fiction territory. The story is partially a cautionary tale about the hazards of a world drunk on its own technological progress. It is also a story about the violence of families, transported to an appropriately horrific setting. Babies eat mothers, mothers kill babies, fathers mysteriously disappear—but the family stubbornly holds its ground, despite the death of the world around it. Here Oates explores a postmodern terrain where an alien reality has an uncanny similarity to the lived reality of American society. Like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and some of Angela Carter's fantastic novels, this story chills because, despite its science fiction tenor, it seems all too familiar.

The story is told from the point of view of a family member who describes, but does not analyze, the gradual deterioration of life in "the valley." The story begins with a shocking description of industrial pollution and contamination as sublime:

The days were brief and attenuated and the season appeared to be fixed—neither summer nor winter, spring nor fall. A thermal haze of inexpressible sweetness (though bearing tiny bits of grit or mica) had eased into the valley from the industrial regions to the north…. Above the patchwork of excavated land bordering our property—all of which had formerly been our property in Grandfather's time: thousands of acres of fertile soil and open grazing land—a curious fibrillating rainbow sometimes appeared, its colors shifting even as you stared, shades of blue, turquoise, iridescent green, russet red, a lovely translucent gold that dissolved to moisture as the thermal breeze stirred, warm and stale as an exhaled breath.

The family seems hypnotized by this "inexpressible sweetness" and they display a frightening ability to adapt to an increasingly poisonous environment. Part of that adaptation includes forgetting life as it used to be; memories vanish, words evaporate, vocabulary changes, and the "new" world replaces the old. At the end of the story, a post-apocalypse spring is born, and the family debates "abolishing the calendar entirely and declaring this the First Day of Year One, and beginning Time anew." This frightening tale warns against complacency and accommodation. It works.

"Ladies and Gentleman:" is also a nightmare tale that critiques the progress-oriented pulse of a society that finds it easier to forget the past than to deal with it. This is satire on the model of "A Modest Proposal" and, along with the science fiction feel of "Family," suggests that Oates is once again experimenting with new modes. The story takes the form of a speech by the captain of a boat to a group of aging men and women who are being put out to pasture by their greedy children and grandchildren. The reader is made to feel trapped along with the passengers en route to The Island of Tranquility where they will be left to die. The captain suggests that "we" are being punished for failing to grant "our" children identities of their own: "Ladies and gentlemen, you rarely stopped to consider your children as other than your children, as men and women growing into maturity distinct from you."

These last two stories mark a departure from what I have been arguing is Oates's place within the postmodern questioning of the politics of representation. Interestingly, in terms of their anti-realist mode, these two stories seem to point toward the possibility of Oates moving more fully and explicitly into the postmodern. Indeed, Oates has entered this terrain before, with her revisions of romance form in Mysteries of Winterthurn and A Bloodsmoor Romance and with the meta-fictional and meta-historical Bellefleur. Joyce Carol Oates, of course, is not a writer who bows to critical or generic orthodoxy, and it is difficult to place her within any one strain of contemporary fiction. A writer of stunning range and imaginative reach, Oates, in my view, is most interesting when she leaves safe ground to explore the complex psychological and political dynamics of storytelling. This exploration is what makes I Lock My Door Upon Myself not only the best of the three books, but a very good book indeed. Heat and Other Stories, as a collection, raises a number of interesting questions about Oates's position in relation to the lives and worlds she constructs. That the stories about privileged characters utilize a different narrative voice and stance than the stories of the underprivileged suggests that Oates is fully aware of the complicated ways in which fiction engages questions of social position. If, in scrutinizing the Others of American society, she forces her readers to confront their own comfortable subjective positions, then she has accomplished a great deal. The white, middle-class characters in Heat are subtly displaced from their empowered positions, both by the intrusion of Otherness and uncertainty into their worlds, and by Oates's disinterested narrators who frame these characters as unworthy of reader empathy or identification. My discomfort with The Rise of Life on Earth stems from my sense that Oates is appropriating a "sordid and shocking" life from a voyeuristic distance that leaves her readers safe and secure in their position above that life. Perhaps other readers will see what I have missed in this novel, for Oates does not strike me as a writer who unthinkingly represents any life. In her famous Balzacian desire to "put the whole world into a book," Oates just might revisit Kathleen's story and tell it from Kathleen's perspective. Whatever she does next, even readers who are ambivalent about Joyce Carol Oates can at least be sure that she will continue to shock—and to surprise.

(read more)

This section contains 6,887 words
(approx. 23 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Sally Robinson