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.
The rivalry of brothers is a theme that appears in a couple of stories. In Fossil-Figures the brothers are twins, a dangerously symbiotic relation that Oates often returns to. Jealousy, revenge, mutual contempt and murderous intent are at the centre of her fraternal relationships. But, like the brothers in Death-Cup, they wind up enmeshed in a grotesque embrace.
A Hole in the Head has a contemporary quality that makes some of the other stories seem curiously dated. It’s about a cosmetic surgeon who prides himself on his expert management of the vulnerable women who depend on him.
Having exhausted the joys of rejuvenation of the flesh, a few begin to murmur to him about their desire for the new treatment of trepanning, the drilling of holes in the head that will give them a rejuvenation of the spirit. One of them is insistent and, when she flourishes her chequebook, he succumbs. Though why he buys the drill to do the job at the hardware store, ensuring a bloody end, is not explained.
There’s no blood or gore, though, in what is the best of the stories here apart from The Corn Maiden. What Helping Hands has is a situation expectant only with the threat of violence. Helene is newly widowed, half-mad with grief and loss. She is existing in what she sees as the “afterlife” of the widow, unreal and detached. When she brings some clothes that belonged to her husband to a charity shop, she is drawn to the assistant, a disabled army veteran called Nicolas. After he kisses her hand – “pressed his mouth, hungry, wet, against her startled skin” – she is obsessed with him. Nicolas is trouble, the reader can see. But Oates keeps him on a leash for once and the story, instead of devolving into horror, explores the yearning, anguish and foolishness of Helene’s new loneliness.
Maybe one fastens on this story because it seems to reveal something about Oates herself, who was widowed some years ago. For all her words, the author herself is a mystery. When her journals were published recently, they were devoid of passion or conflict or even opinion and cast no light on her whatsoever. They presented her precisely as she presents herself in public: an industrious writer and teacher at Princeton, who appreciates the autumn foliage and a dinner party with her peers. Does this explain the unease one feels about her work? The suspicion that she deals in fantasy, not in the kind of imagination that can truly represent the world?
She is fanatically, almost exclusively, interested in human emotions. But characters who do little more than express their emotions in lurid enactions of wish fulfilment throw little light on how most of us deal with them.