Lurid emotion from the dark heart of modern America
FICTION:The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares, By Joyce Carol Oates, Head of Zeus, 365pp, £16.99
Where do you start with the phenomenal Joyce Carol Oates? Most reviewers, to her chagrin, go belly-up and start with the mystery of her huge productivity, and I’m not going to be an exception. In a career of 40-odd years she has published more than 50 stylish and sophisticated novels and at least the same number of collections of stories, poems, essays and plays.
She’s like one of those 19th-century novelists who would write 10,000 words before breakfast. But unlike, say, Trollope, she’s not easy on herself or on the reader. At her best she writes vivid, intense depictions of the dark heart of modern America with a knowledge that must be hard to live with. Imaginatively, she’s obsessed with violence. Rape, incest, passionate murder under all its names, infanticide, fratricide, parricide. Her characters tend to be outwardly successful urbane people who are seething inside with secret and dangerous emotions, primarily jealousy.
This latest work, a collection of stories published in magazines over the past few years, is fairly typical Oates. In The Corn Maiden, which is really a novella, both in length and development, there’s the malign child, Jude, clever and manipulative and plain, and the pretty golden-haired innocent child, Marissa, who becomes her obsession and her victim.
Jude, with the help of her more stolid acolytes, abducts Marissa from her after-school trip to the 7-Eleven store to play the role of the corn maiden, a sacrifice offered to the gods by a part-fictional, part-composite Indian tribe. Imprisoned in a cellar on her velvet bier – Jude is a nascent impresario – Marissa is fed sedatives and a diet intended to cause death by starvation. “It was Taboo Jude said for the Corn Maiden to ingest any foods except white foods.”
As the corn maiden pales and pines like a fairy-tale archetype, the twisted Jude plots and plays with the police, the schoolteachers and Marissa’s distraught mother. It’s a riveting story, affecting as well as suspenseful. Oates doesn’t flinch from grisly outcomes and we fear for the fate of the poor corn maiden, for her bereft guilt-ridden mother, for the teacher who is arrested for the crime. And we fear for Jude. Even gifted with inner darkness, she’s still a pitiable girl. There’s also a hint of humour in the writing that cools it down and makes it just slightly but delectably playful. And yes, the ending is violent and terrible. But also surprisingly, gratefully, happy. Happy-ish anyway. The Corn Maiden may not bear much pondering but it’s certainly a kind of perfect fairy tale.
Coming after it, the other stories can seem flat and merely sensational. In Beersheba, a deranged girl takes violent revenge on a man who, as she sees it, destroyed her mother’s life. In Nobody Knows My Name, a jealous child does the same to her baby sister. Or does she? Was it the wild cat, the “thistledown gray” cat, who may or not be imaginary? This story is rich with the prejudices and fierce honesties of childhood and the hopeful hypocrisies of adults, but the denouement seems strangely hackneyed as if we’ve read this story often before.