Oates inexplicably squanders her gifts in this dream-like, stream-of-conscious exploration of a young woman’s state of mind, her attraction to a power...moreOates inexplicably squanders her gifts in this dream-like, stream-of-conscious exploration of a young woman’s state of mind, her attraction to a powerful older man, and her eventual doom. The writing is poetic, evocative, and certainly challenging – which is to be expected from a novelist of Oates’ caliber. Unfortunately, despite the attempt to give the characters an almost mythic stature, the ideas on display are rather pedestrian – and are certainly not helped by the very basic, near-formulaic rendering of a Naïve Idealistic Young Woman and All-Too-Fallible Father Figure.(less)
Oates restrains herself in this short but intense novel, her spare and dryly ironic style proving to be an unsettling counterpoint to the increasingly...moreOates restrains herself in this short but intense novel, her spare and dryly ironic style proving to be an unsettling counterpoint to the increasingly overripe, unpleasant scenarios in which the "hero" wallows. the goddess Cybele may be a symbol of fecundity, but in Oates' hands, her power over men is more malign. the vehicle: one man's mid-life crisis; the result: morbid preoccupation and surreal excess. Joyce, you are a sick, sick woman. i love you! however, i do wish your novel Cybele was just a wee bit more memorable. it is almost like you boiled down all of your favorite themes to a kind of Oates Template...and then forgot to build a truly compelling narrative around it. i'm just mainly tasting the soup base...and it is too strong, too intensely flavored to enjoy. more nuance, less predestination.
still, even your lesser works shame many an inferior author's best efforts. please never change, cruel and perfect lady!(less)
joyce carol oates writing as rosamond smith is a writer of thrillers, often ones concerned with dualities within human nature. it is an interesting si...morejoyce carol oates writing as rosamond smith is a writer of thrillers, often ones concerned with dualities within human nature. it is an interesting side project for an amazing writer. in Soul/Mate, she seems rather less concerned with dualities and more concerned with a kind of pastiche of the romantic thriller, complete with various overblown situations, scarcely believable characters, and almost purple prose. it is an interesting book because oates is an interesting writer; it is also rather off-putting, maybe because the romantic thriller is still quite alive and breathing. nothing new is being said here, which is unusual from an author who usually surprises me with her insights. still, the novel features a very sympathetic psychopath, which is always an entertaining achievement. and the writing is a savory thing.(less)
sometimes it is hard to say no, and sometimes when i love an author, especially an author i've read for much of my life, especially an author whose th...moresometimes it is hard to say no, and sometimes when i love an author, especially an author i've read for much of my life, especially an author whose themes fascinate me, i start to think of them as a part of myself, i start to think of them as that part in which i can see the flaws but can still forgive all of them, it is hard to say no to them, it is hard not to see quality in even their weakest efforts; and so it is with Joyce Carol Oates, and so it is with her pseudonym Rosamond Smith: Oates being a distaff version of the western literary canon's tough guys - their endless searches for male identity reflected in her reinvention of feminism into some dark search for self, a search for the true nature of femininity, Rosamond Smith herself being a distaff version of tough guy Oates - eternally questing to redefine genre and eternally obsessed with the morbid things from which most avert their eyes; and so the story is typical for Oates in her desire to eviscerate then reconstruct models of strong and weak womanhood, and so the story is typical for Smith in her play with doubles and murder and reflections of self; and so it features a heroine who is so weak and simpering and remorseful that it becomes almost intolerable, and so it also features a heroine who is so strong and terrible and remorseless that it almost becomes wish fulfillment - an exotic dancer and cunning grifter, an exotic dancer and a completely batshit crazy serial killer; and so it is all so satisfying in a way to contemplate the breadth of Oates' abilities and the beautiful ambiguity of her writing, and yet it is all so unsatisfying to see the themes and doubling so predictably laid out as if by template, as if Oates' exorcism of these ideas has become nothing more than an ongoing bodily function; and it is as if i make excuses for a less than brilliant, lifeless tale simply because it is coming from an author that i feel has always been a brilliant and lifelong friend.(less)
Joyce Carol Oates writing as Rosamond Smith, in one of her more appealing yet perverse outings. rather oddly, this time there is something wonderfully...moreJoyce Carol Oates writing as Rosamond Smith, in one of her more appealing yet perverse outings. rather oddly, this time there is something wonderfully light and stylized in the usual depiction of doubles and deception and murder. the regular heaviness is absent; was Oates in a good mood when she wrote this and so only feeling slightly brutal? maybe someone did something nice for her that afternoon.
still, the traps she sets for the protagonist and the reader are cruel and plentiful, and the depths and perversity to which the characters must descend are morbidly fascinating and almost tragically inevitable. so, yeah, standard Oates. yet there is a playfulness and irony that brings the tale to a place of near-satire. perhaps it is the archness of language and the stylization of character; perhaps it is in the use of tattooing as a signifier for all that threatens and subsumes. maybe it is just in the fun of reading such a byzantine series of feints and charades, featuring well-to-do and mysterious characters with names like "Tristram Heade" and "Fleur Grunwald" and "Angus Markham".(less)
"'Bad blood'! --what does that mean?" I asked, revulsed by the thought, and Mother said, "'Bad feeling.' basically," and I said, "But why call it something so ugly-- 'bad blood'? Ugh." My throat choked up as if the smell was with us in the room. "One day," Mother said ominously, yet with satisfaction, "you'll know."
sweet Jesus, this was a disturbing novella.
SOME SPOILERS but nothing you won't find right on the back cover of the book
precocious 11-year old Josie and her intriguing but worthless mother flee their world to live with some distant relatives: Great-Aunt Esther Burkhardt and her sepulchral grandson, 25-year old Jared Jr - a seminary student now living at home again, due to a mysterious bout of 'nervous exhaustion' at the seminary. one balmy day in the dead heat of August, Josie comes across a shirtless and sweaty Jared, gazing into the river that lies behind their dilapidated manor. she is transfixed by that bare torso, "the vertebrae of his spine prominent as tiny knuckles, a ripply impress of ribs through his translucent-pale skin". she has fallen in love; she is hypnotized like a little bird before a snake. Jared forcibly seduces her ('molest' is the appropriate word), and will soon do even more - physically torturing her body and psychologically ensnaring her mind, deeper and deeper, until she finally lashes back in her own small but effective fashion.
i usually give tales of child abuse and molestation a very wide berth. NOT INTERESTED. too grueling, and i am the sort who reads mainly for enjoyment, and not necessarily for edification on how low humans can go. and so i've had this on my shelf, unread, since it was first published in 1996. not sure why tonight was the night that i finally found the nerve to read it, but i'm glad i did. it is graphic, but not overly so. it is a cruel story, but it does not end in nihilism. and man it is beautifully written. gorgeous, really. Oates is a phenomenal writer and First Love shows off her skill at constructing a hypnotic narrative full of sinister imagery, multi-layered dialogue, compelling monsters, and a painfully real interior monologue. i want to re-emphasize "hypnotic". that is the perfect word for this grim tale.
so in the end, what did i get out of it? not a whole lot i suppose. Oates is a fantastic writer, check. Child Abuse = Horror, check. religious zealots often have hearts full of evil and perversion (and not the good kind of perversion)... the South is full of "eccentrics"... little kids can be little survivors: check, check, and check. Jesus has many faces so which is the real one - well, that's not a concept i encounter often, but it is a rather underdeveloped (although interesting) part of the novella. so the main take-away for me is that i still consider Oates to be one of my favorite authors and she surely does like to write about dark places. which is why i was attracted to her in the first place. maybe less child molestation in my next Oates read though.
First Love: A Gothic Tale (that's the full title) is a slim but complete package: written by Oates and 'illustrated & designed' by Barry Moser. he is a brilliant artist as well. his woodcuts are top-notch. gothic, creepy, perfect for the material. here's his portrait of that charmer Jared Jr:
as in the book... sweaty, with skin like a snake. ::shudders::
another interesting bit:
Mother said, her gaze on me calculating, impatient, of the silver glint of light reflected in swift-moving water, "There is no 'there', there is only 'here'. Just as there is no 'then', but only 'now'. America is founded upon such principles, and, as Americans, we must be, too."