A history of violence
Joyce Carol Oates: evokes the harshly beautiful style of DH Lawrence. photograph: jeremy sutton-hibbert/getty
FICTION:Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel, about the abduction and torture of a young boy, is harrowing, horrifying and utterly contemporary
Daddy Love, By Joyce Carol Oates, A Mysterious Press Book for Head of Zeus, 279pp, £16.99
In the photograph of Joyce Carol Oates on this book, her vast eyes gaze plaintively upwards. She resembles nothing so much as a medieval saint or perhaps, in her pallid delicacy, a flower. But Daddy Love, a story of abduction, is sinister, harrowing and utterly contemporary.
There is a mimetic, even incantatory quality to Oates’s writing that evokes (at least for this reader) the harshly beautiful style of DH Lawrence. Bleakly repetitive, the first four chapters of Daddy Love mirror in language the obsession of a mother with the moments preceding her son’s abduction: “Take my hand, she said. He did. Lifted his small hand to Mommy’s hand. ‘Please take my hand, Robbie.’ He did. He lifted his pudgy hand . . . ‘Take my hand. Please, Robbie!’ Take my hand, she said . . . And she’d clasped the little hand tight for she was Mommy, and she was responsible.”
Robbie’s captor, who seizes him from his mother after striking her on the head with a hammer, is Chester Cash, a preacher like something out of Flannery O’Connor, only much more fiendish. For Chester Cash is evil, and the novel compels us to consider that evil is endlessly self-justifying: “Daddy Love” truly believes he is rescuing five-year-old Robbie from “an impure woman, the female you were entrusted to”, and that the extreme forms of verbal, physical and sexual torture he inflicts on the boy are acts of love: “Daddy Love is your destiny. Daddy Love will be both Daddy and Mommy to you.”
Among Oates’s masters (Poe, the surrealists) is Lewis Carroll, and shape-changing is one of her prevailing themes. For six years Robbie lives in thrall to this shape-changing monster who is alternately the Preacher, Chet Cash and Daddy Love. We read that the Preacher’s skin was “pale and bleached-looking . . . comprised of thin layers, or scales, of transparent skin-tissue, like a palimpsest”. And Dinah, Robbie’s mother (whose body is a “smashed starfish” after Chet Cash’s assault on her when she tries to rescue her son) endures lasting disfigurement, her face composed of “papery-thin scar tissue in layers”. In her graduate psychology course, Dinah has learned of “the uncanny valley in which the degree of the unbearable increases as the nonhuman approaches the look of the human . . . had wanted to say to the professor, wittily, Hey, I live there!”
It could be argued that despite her fascination with violence, Oates is concerned mainly with the soul or spirit. And with the search for self, which in the US is often resolved through violence. According to her biographer, she herself has borderline anorexia, which could be considered an affliction not so much of the body as of the spirit, an attempt to refine the self to its purest lineaments.
In this book she speaks of “lostness as a condition of which no one can speak clearly for it is a mystery – the lostness deep within the soul.” And after Dinah is struck and her child seized, she is aware that “her skull was cracked because her soul was leaking through the crack”.