A history of violence

Joyce Carol Oates: evokes the harshly beautiful style of DH Lawrence. photograph: jeremy sutton-hibbert/getty

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!”

Soul concern

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”.

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.

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