Joyce Carol Oates | Critical Review by R. V. Cassill

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Joyce Carol Oates.
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Critical Review by R. V. Cassill

SOURCE: "Journey to the End of Suburban Night," in Washington Post Book World, November 3, 1968, p. 5.

Below, Cassill calls Expensive People "a prophetic novel," alluding to several literary precedents.

The question is no longer whether Miss Oates is a very good writer—she is, indeed—but just how far and high she can thrust the trajectory of brilliant accomplishment she has begun. It appears to me that her gifts are at least equal to those of the late Flannery O'Connor. If she is not absolutely more serious than Nabokov—whose Lolita this present novel resembles in its virtuosity—she is more obviously "ours" and therefore to be taken more seriously by us. Everything she touches turns to such blistering gold that sometimes I suspect she must have had Rumpelstiltskin in to help her spin it in the night.

Expensive People contains and exploits a little of everything. It is satire, confession, dream, report on suburbia, gothic tale in contemporary dress, with even some touches of the pop novel thrown in to show that the author can find a valid use for the screech of that untuned fiddle, too. But though her technique is eclectic, parodistic, sheer magpie, her bits of everything are fused into a prophetic novel as singular in effect as the night cry of a hurt animal.

The Ancient Mariner who narrates this journey to the end of the suburban night is Richard Everett, carrying 250 pounds of glutton's fat on his bones, eighteen years old, and looking back from the far side of precocity at his pre-pubescent years and at a murder he committed then. Precocity is the theme his confessions elaborate upon, and not the good old tame dementia praecox of the clinicians, either, but the fated precocity of children at the end of an age that has exhausted its possibilities and parceled out its vision in cubes of knowledge that don't even have to be dispensed through schools anymore.

Poor Richard's parents are either disastrously mismatched or perfectly matched for disaster. His mother, Nadya or Natasha or just plain Nancy according to the persona she assumes, is a novelist with the kind of small, esoteric reputation that helps not at all in her suburban manipulations and ambitions. She claims to be of immigrant Russian ancestry, but one of her short stories discovered and read by her prodigious son hints of a more uncanny origin—as if she had been born, really, from her own bad dreams. In spite of her fictional sensibilities, she conducts her social life, parenthood and numerous adulteries with the crude, unillumined remainder of her nature.

Apparently this fey woman married Elwood Everett exactly so he would carry her into the "heaven" of suburban affluence. "I am Natasha Everett and I am out of history…. I'm clean of its stink," she cries to one of her former friends, who has showed up to rebuke her for backsliding from Bohemia. Another literary lover complains that her husband "is not contemporary with me. That man is out of Charles Dickens." ("He is not out of Dickens but out of Proust, you bastard," says Nadya.)

The author sees Elwood Everett as being out of Sinclair Lewis, though the qualities of Babbitt are mostly insulation or camouflage for a core of power and cunning that gives Everett the power to match Nadya's enormities with moral atrocities of his own. At one point he can display a sort of malodorous saintliness, begging his son not to let on to mother that they know about her adulterous connections. Nevertheless, even his attempts at cultural self-improvement or parental kindness are soured by purposeful bad timing. He seems to use bad timing to trip others up, the better to clamber over them.

In spite of such vigorous characterization of the parents, the story remains Richard's. He, after all, must not only endure them and attempt to arbitrate between them. He must love them, too, because the blindness of their greed makes them his children. He must, somehow, atone for them in a godless universe where atonement is almost literally unthinkable. So the primary task they have bequeathed him might be called a theological one, on top of the emotional knots they have bound him with. His exquisitely tormented intellect mistrusts theology. Hence his choice of composing a memoir as a device for justifying himself and his family, making the tiny world of a book to serve as a screen against the horrors of existence. His memoir is not art, but refuge, he suggests.

Perhaps it will seem a tour de force to assign to a child such vocabulary and perception as Miss Oates does. It is her reckless wager that he will seem not less but more a child because of the purity with which he registers those contradictions that adults blur as the price of survival.

Richard Everett is childlike enough when he buys the murder weapon—a rifle with a telescopic sight—and finds the telescope the most interesting thing about it. "It brought them [some working men] to me in a kind of haze, not quite real but not imaginary either, and it pleased me to think of how they existed both for themselves and for me, their spy." The unselfishness of his motives for the killing is also—almost unbearably—childlike. To accommodate the thought of murder, we need to believe in motives formed of unambivalent passion or calculated interest. Miss Oates gives a real turn of the screw in showing how ethereal the killer's choice may be.

In reading the novel you will find that Richard Everett is no mere artifice by which the author cloaks her own voice and observations of the life of our times. I called this a prophetic novel precisely because she shows with such devastating clarity the moral and intellectual burdens this phase of the civilization has discharged on its precocious children. A gluttonous civilization whose only uncanceled hope of salvation is finally sniffed out by the narrator: He will eat himself to death, like an uncle of his mother's who killed himself with gluttony to shame his gluttonous family.

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This section contains 1,007 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by R. V. Cassill
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