A history of violence
The abuse of Robbie (renamed Gideon by his captor) is described in precise, excruciating detail. Chet Cash’s methods are painstaking and seem reasonable to himself: in this way his madness becomes all too vividly real for the reader. (A scene involving a dog is particularly horrifying.) And thrown like a shadow over the novel is the fact that Chet Cash abducted boys before, and murdered them when they reached puberty and became repellent to him.
Daddy Love is the latest in a long tradition of captivity novels, beginning, perhaps, with Kidnapped and Treasure Island and extending to The Collector by John Fowles and, most recently, Emma Donoghue’s Room. In many of these books the captive is at last rescued, a pattern to which Daddy Love seems to adhere. But this is a Joyce Carol Oates novel, and therefore charged with an ambiguity that extends even to the last page.
In any case, like many of her books, Daddy Love is a kind of meditation on the ordinariness of violence in the US, on how many Americans choose violence as an acte gratuit, as if it were by definition courageous, a realisation of the self. And there is the “sarcastic talk-show host” who comments on the story of another abducted boy who has been returned to his family after four years: “Looks to me like the kid could’ve gotten away lots of times. Looks to me like he’d come to like his new life . . . no school . . . eating pizzas . . . the kid was getting along pretty well with his ‘abductor’. There’s more here than meets the eye and the ‘liberal media’.”
This moment would be hilarious if it weren’t so dark, and so darkly familiar from the tirades of ultraconservative media commentators in the US.
Prolific or profligate?
Oates is renowned, and sometimes criticised, for her tremendous output: is she prolific, or somehow profligate, with her staggering number of books? There are some signs that this novel was hastily written, such as an occasional clumsiness in phrasing that startles the reader, especially as the prose in general is so measured and taut.
I met Oates on a ferry from the Aran Islands, where she had been reading at a literary festival. We were at a table in the galley, encircled by bustle and noise, but she had lowered her head and was writing concentratedly in a small book. After a while, she closed the book and raised her head, fastening those extraordinary eyes on us, and proceeded to swing with alacrity into the conversation. Perhaps this balance of single-minded dedication and a lively engagement with the world is one of the secrets of her great literary success.