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Critical Review by Elizabeth Janeway
SOURCE: "Clara the Climber," in The New York Times Book Review, September 10, 1967, pp. 5, 63.
In the review below, Janeway draws thematic parallels between A Garden of Earthly Delights and Theodore Dreiser's fiction.
This isn't the best book that Joyce Carol Oates is going to write, but if you want to see a big, solid talent getting under way, I suggest you read [A Garden of Earthly Delights.]
Miss Oates's approach to fiction is more like Dreiser's than that of anyone else I can think of. She is as absorbed in the interaction between individual Americans and the society they live in as he was. Her writing is clumsy in places, as his was (though less clumsy in language), inhabited by strong, vivid characters—ordinary, unromantic, but thoroughly alive. There are passages that could be cut and pages, contrariwise, that want fleshing out with action. But when Miss Oates is good she is very, very good; and she is good often enough in the right way and in the right places to prove that she knows what she is doing. I found a distinct advance in her work over her deservedly praised volume of short stories, Upon the Sweeping Flood.
This is the story of Clara Walpole, who was born sometime in the twenties someplace in Arkansas in the back of a truck used for transporting migrant workers from one picking job to another. Clara's mother, Pearl, and her father, Carleton, were among the 30 workers riding the truck. For Carleton's hill farm in Kentucky had contrived to slide away from him under a load of debt. In the rain, on the slick road-surface, the truck collided with a car.
Breughel might have painted the scene with which the book opens—men standing around in the rain, talking, watching, waiting; excited children making a holiday of the accident; the tilted truck and, nosed against it, the car it had struck, with a frightened man trapped inside and, pounding on it with her fists, a screaming woman far gone in rage and pregnancy, so out of control that her anger was felt as sacred. This was Clara's mother. Clara was born half an hour later, under a canvas to keep out the rain, with some of the other travelling women for midwives. This is obviously the kind of scene that could be written to shock, but it isn't. Very much like Dreiser here, Miss Oates's honest grip on reality makes us feel but not flinch. The scene carries immense authority. It is heavy with the weight of human experience.
Clara grows up "travelling in the season." She is her father's favorite. As her mother sinks into withdrawn apathy, she is the only member of the family with enough grasp on life to be able to reverse the process of degradation and move out of the migratory ghetto. Clara is tough, as she must be to escape from a society that not only denies its children any ties (like schooling) with the world outside, but also rips apart that fundamental human unit, the family. Clara, however, somehow knows that the outer world can be reached, and she possesses the drive, will and native intelligence to get out into it. Her mother fades into passive madness, and dies in childbirth. Her stepmother deteriorates from a pretty girl into a malicious slattern. Her father is pushed toward bouts of uncontrolled violence. But Clara is a survivor, and when she sees a chance, she escapes.
She escapes via a man. Again, her native wit is good enough for her to find a man who will give her a chance and set her on her way. Lowry is not at all a beneficent figure. He helps Clara for his own complicated personal reasons. But he is an excellent choice for a savior. He takes Clara as far as she can go in her first giant stride toward a life in the world, and helps her to set up on her own and find her way toward independence.
Ironically, it is a very middle-class independence that Clara wants and finds, and which fails her in the end. Miss Oates seems determined to show us that if anything is better than the fragmented, torturing limbo of life in the migrant workers' camps, middle-class materialism and morality are still not good enough. Though Clara continues to fight and connive her way up the social scale, she ends not too differently from her own mother, while her father's purposeless violence reappears in her son.
Here again are Dreiserian echoes. The human being bends to the force of fate, but there is nothing mystic or supernatural about this destiny: we can see it everywhere around us in the ordinary life of mankind. Neither self-knowledge nor will can defeat the grubby gods of the everyday world where weakness, ignorance and failure wait for everyone.
If I have made Miss Oates's book and her thesis sound dreary, I have not done them an injustice. This is, in a way, a dreary book despite its excellences; dreary, powerful, determined, limited and true. How much dreariness one will put up with for the sake of truth depends on the reader. I believe that A Garden of Earthly Delights is a prime example of that banal description, "a book worth reading." It gives much more than it asks. Still, I suspect that Miss Oates's work is more dogged, determined and dreary than it need be; that her aims will stand forth more clearly when she loosens her grip on her characters and situations. For there is a feeling here of too much control.
Heaven knows, a writer needs self-confidence and authority to tackle a Dreiserian theme today. But the reader comes to feel, as Clara's story develops, not merely that Miss Oates knows what she is doing, but that she knows it too well. By excluding alternatives, her knowledge becomes a limiting and confining force. Perhaps Clara is doomed—but should the reader already sense this two-thirds (or less) of the way through the book? To see vital, attractive, energetic Clara cut down by the limits that society places on her could provoke a true feeling of tragedy; but not if one expects it; not if her choices are foreclosed in advance; not (in short) if one feels that the author, rather than life, is denying Clara her full scope.
Fiction and sociology run into each other these days, reaching for the same material. Sociology's facts can be fascinating and highly instructive, nor need they differ from the material of fiction: The American Journal of Sociology, for instance, recently carried a study of "the cocktail lounge," which offers a firm briefing on new courting patterns. What the novelist brings to this common ground is not the ability to collect case histories, but rather a training in how to relate them to an over-all pattern of behavior; in how to process data by a more daring and multilayered technique than social scientists allow themselves. Fictional characters stand for more than themselves, but not because they typify conditions. Rather, they present an aspect of absolute truth.
My quarrel with Miss Oates centers here, for I think she is generalizing too timidly from her enormously valuable social material. Clara bursts out of her background, surprising, willful, strong, earthy and decisive. When the author is describing her as if she were a case history, Clara is granted wildness and freedom: her autonomy. Miss Oates should not let her fictionalizing trap Clara in a preordained fate. That is not its function. Fiction should not pull facts toward truth by chopping off the extremes of possibility and denying them in advance. When it generalizes properly, it does so by accepting all potentialities, all extremes and working toward a meaning from them.
I honor Miss Oates's talent, her courage, her industry and her approach to describing a social world. I want only to beg her to remember how large and astonishing that world can be. It is the reach as well as the solidity of Dreiser's characters (and of Dostoevsky's, for that matter) which reconciles readers to occasional bumpy trips through dreary landscapes. Still, it is a considerable compliment to Miss Oates's talent that one argues for her characters against their author.
This section contains 1,368 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)