Jesse's Reviews > Bellefleur

Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
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's review
Jul 17, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: american-lit, read-in-2011
Read from May 26 to July 05, 2011

"The living and the dead. Braided together. Woven together. An immense tapestry taking in centuries."

A little over 100 pages into this novel I stumbled across the above lines, and even though I had another 500+ pages to go, I instinctively sensed that I had discovered the key to this immense, sprawling narrative, a description of what Oates was attempting to accomplish with Bellefleur. Literally spanning centuries, seven different generations and involving dozens of distinct characters, this is the story of the Bellefleurs, a privileged and moneyed family of the type usually characterized as American aristocracy. But Oates intentionally shatters her story into countless little shards of narrative so that with each chapter—all which function as their own stand-alone vignettes or even short stories—the reader is pulled between vastly different times and characters, with no obvious correlation from one to the next. At first it's disorienting, but Oates does eventually create the vague impression that the entire thing is indeed operating by its own internal logic and intricately designed rhythms. Frankly, this is a novel to get lost in, and one must be willing to make that decision intentionally.

Because it's literally impossible to keep things straight from one page to the next, sometimes even one paragraph to the next—there are many examples of two characters sharing the same name, and this family's history often seems to have a habit of operating on an endless loop. In this way I was reminded of Oates's own description of another novel that often came to mind while reading Bellefleur:

"Wuthering Heights... ambitiously diffuses its consciousness among several contrasting perspectives; its structure is not so complicated as it initially appears, but chronology is fractured, not linear, and certain of its most powerful images... require a second reading to be fully comprehended. What is mystery becomes irony what is opaque becomes translucent poetry. There are numerous flash-forwards, as well; and a mirroring of characters across generations."*

Reading back over that description of Brontë's novel, it seems clear to me that this was exactly the modus operandi behind Oates's own work. And while Oates doesn't quite reach the same heights of feverish ecstasies of her model, she did manage to create countless characters and images and actions in Bellefleur that I won't soon forget.

Which is not to say that I loved this novel unconditionally—several hundred pages in I knew which characters I didn't find very interesting and began to skim the chapters they appeared in, and I really did have to force myself to finish the last 100 pages or so (which is a shame, because it really does all lead up to an unexpected and incendiary conclusion).

Basically I wanted a leisurely summer read—"a voluptuous novel crammed with people and events," as Oates herself called it**—and that's exactly what I got. And for the most part, I enjoyed it thoroughly.


* - Uncensored: Views and (Re)views
** - The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982
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Reading Progress

05/26/2011 "I'm a rather burnt out on High Modernism at the moment (sorry Carl VV), so I'm relishing this deliciously knotty, digressive, turgid yarn!"
06/01/2011 "This is a full-immersion reading experience..."

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Sketchbook (new)

Sketchbook For me, Oates always falls between 2 stools...

message 2: by Jesse (last edited Jul 23, 2011 03:15PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jesse I can understand that. My first introduction to her work was her remarkable Journals, which was pretty formative for me. I've only waded occasionally into her fiction, and when I do, my memories of what she wrote in her journals about her writing process has tended to make me sympathetic to what she attempts, and appreciate it even when it doesn't quite hit the mark. I'm not sure what I would have made of Bellefleur if I hadn't realized she intended it to be taken as a rip-roaring, turgid potboiler, not a Serious Novel.

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