Joyce Carol Oates is fascinated by the seedy corners of American life. Her recent novels are narrated by orphans, mutilated girls, the abused, the impoverished, celebrities destroyed by fame, children from families destroyed by rape. Oates's books often open with a riddling exposition which implies a hidden trauma. We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) begins: 'No one would be able to name what had happened, not even Marianne Mulvaney to whom it had happened.' 'Lover', from Faithless: Tales of Transgression (2001): 'You won't know me, won't see my face. Unless you see my face. And then it will be too late.' Middle Age: A Romance (2001): 'You leave home one afternoon, you never return as yourself. Leaving home, you don't anticipate not returning as yourself. The home you've left ceases to be a home once you've left. If you fail to return.' Oates's brittle narrators find themselves overwhelmed by events, plunged into solitary desperation. 'And now how lonely. How alone, and how lonely . . . I felt such acute loneliness, the physical shock and panic of loneliness, I could not bear to be by myself,' the narrator of I'll Take You There (2002) writes. Oates's Marilyn Monroe, the heroine of Blonde (2000), was a study in confused frailty, a woman longing for love, entertaining intellectual ambitions no one took seriously, teetering on too-high heels, in too-tight dresses, slowly stripped bare for the reader. Her narrators are open and conspiratorial, 'sharing their pain' like a support group of Molly Blooms.
LRB 19 February 2004 | PDF Download