I should probably research lighter elements. The darker seems just so much closer, natural, inevitable, and universal. -Joyce Carol Oates
I read Night Gaunts by Joyce Carol Oates this week and I want to tell you how amazing it is.
But I’m not going to give my Literary Mom a bad review. I can’t. I want to be upfront about that, and I want to tell you why.
(I’m biased, yes; wrong, no. JCO is stupendous and Night Gaunts is unsurprisingly genius, she has consistently churned masterpieces out like dime novels for over forty years.)
Joyce Carol Oates: Book Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Society said to women of JCO’s time: “You can’t write 149 books in a confusing number of genres and who the hell knows how many articles, reviews, etc, all while teaching at Princeton for 40+ years, co-founding the hugely respected North American Journal of the Arts, The Ontario Review, becoming so weirdly obsessed with boxing that you were asked to be on the New York Commission of it but have to refuse as you are actually a resident of New Jersey, and be the Susan Lucci of the Pulitzer.”
And JCO was like: “Hold my herbal tea which I only deign to drink because the human body is weak and if I do not at least make the barest effort to hydrate and nourish it I will collapse and cannot write.”
There’s Prolific And Then There’s JCO
Compared to Oates we’re all lazy pieces of crap. There is no hope for us. We will never write 149 books. Not just novels, but poems, essays, articles, criticisms, plays, nonfiction, weird tweets. As Interview magazine writes:
…and yet rarely is it mentioned what a staggering variety of genres she’s tackled. It’s impossible to think of another author who has thrived in writing romance, crime, horror, historical biography (notably, her stunning retelling of Marilyn Monroe’s life in her 29th novel, Blonde), suburban domestic, small town tragedy, mythical allegory, fantasy-the list goes on.
Of course I was assigned “Where Are You Going and Where Have You Been?” at some point in high school and I thought to myself, “who the heck is Bob Dylan?”
We Were Both Young When I First Saaaaaaaw Yoooouuuuu
I was seventeen and only a couple years into understanding that high brow literature was a thing and James Patterson, so eagerly devoured in middle school, was not it. I was gathering the lists of book report choices for my high school English classes, fascinated to see what books were considered important enough to be ranked, assigned.
them was on one of the lists, but it was the weighty Blonde that caught my eye. In the eighteen years since, I’ve read almost everything she’s written. Even the Gothic and boxing stuff. I read her published journals in a swoon. When her first husband died I cried.
JCO Is My Lobster
Even in the surreal, mostly historically accurate re-imagining of a long dead screen sirens’ turbulent life I recognized kinship. In Joyce Carol Oates’ voice I sensed a compatriot, a co-conspirator, a kindred spirit. I stared at the woman on the back of the jacket, so obviously having made it-not only by the professional photograph but the publications, awards, and that special Princeton chair listed in her blurb-but also so obviously having done so while never forgetting the darkness within and around her.
Her descriptions of rural Upstate New York are visually similar to my scenery in rural, central Indiana; her small towns littered with familiar types, good and bad (but not JCO bad, let’s be clear). I adored how Joyce so scathingly and succinctly skewers both the Jim Bobs of her rural, lower middle class settings and the Oliver Pembertons of her academic, upper middle class settings. She makes fun of and laid bare where I was coming from and where I aspired to be! It’s the best of both cynical, skeptical worlds!
It is obvious to point out that my favorite author is dark, but JCO’s luridity does not come cheap. (Ok, Daddy Love‘s graphic nature genuinely upset me, but this was after years and years of her Hitchcocking us to death, and I was impressed she could make me that uncomfortable with words). It is not the words she uses inasmuch the way she uses them. JCO does not so much write about violence, but of violence.
Everything is going along, relatively fine, only a tinge of darkness. Like an overcast day. Then the pace of her words, somehow, slightly, imperceptibly, pick up. Now it’s raining-but only a bit-everything is still mostly fine. The pace gets faster, the raindrops are coming harder, until everything IS NOT FINE. In JCO’s writing the raindrops are commas. She can use them sparingly to nourish the soil of her text or she can cause a devastating deluge, dismantling her characters’ physical and/or internal landscapes.
You should see my journal entries and creative writings from ages 17-25. COMMAS EVERYWHERE. Joyce had lit a path and I was running ahead, gleefully flinging commas about me; chopping down trees and planting commas, building a comma estate and raising my family on the profits from my comma farm (subsidized with semicolons).
The Woman In The Window opens with a woman sitting in the window of her apartment wearing nothing but a pair of heels. Her youth is waning, wasted on the married brute of a boyfriend she awaits. As he moves through the city towards her the narrative recklessly swerves between the resentful (murderous?) thoughts of the two lechers.
In a literary episode of Snapped, a slightly unhinged older wife serves a tea for two-herself and the young dancer protege (suspected lover) of her professor husband-in the story The Long Legged Girl. One of the cups is laced with a prescriptive cocktail. Who will get served the fatal cup in this twisted game of Russian roulette?
The Experimental Subject is a wonderfully weird Rosemary’s Baby, The Fly, Island of Dr. Moreau mash-up. The collection ends with a soulful H.P. Lovecraft tribute. I’m not gonna feed this to you. Go read the damn book. ?
Where To Start For The JCO Newbie
- Obsessed with true crime a la the JonBenet Ramsey case? Try My Sister, My Love. Andrea Yates? Dear Husband.
- Wanna sneer at intellectuals? Peep Expensive People
- If Blonde is a bit lengthy for even your Marilyn Monroe obsession, try Black Dahlia, White Rose
- Need a less dark, sweetly redemptive novel? We Were The Mulvaneys is for you
- Curious as to JCO’s interpretation of America’s race relations before things were a complete dumpster fire? Check out Because It Is Bitter, Because It Is My Heart, Black Girl, White Girl, and The Gravedigger’s Daughter
- Like YA? Then you’ll like Two Or Three Things I Forgot To Tell You
- Write a list of JCO’s short story collections on a piece of paper. Place the paper on the floor and hold a paintbrush just dipped in paint over it. Read two or three titles that get paint splatter on them (or do this with pudding and a spoon, then you get to eat pudding)
It was a revelation to the boy that, as soon as he took up the pen, he began to feel hopeful, no matter the grotesquerie of the subject; and it seemed to be a fact that, so long as he gripped the pen, and guided it carefully across the stiff paper, there was no risk of a night-gaunt distracting him. -Joyce Carol Oates, Night Gaunts
Who are your ride-or-die authors? Which authors’ passing made you the saddest? Losing Philip Roth hit me hard. Let me know in the comments below! Share this article to spread (more) Joyce Carol Oates appreciation.
To see a slightly less biased review, click here.
Wanna continue down the rabbit hole of Joyce Carol Oates fandom? This is a great site.