A radical uncertainty surrounds the reputation of Joyce Carol Oates. Her longtime friend, the late John Updike, called her “America’s woman of letters.” Marilynne Robinson has praised her “extraordinary imaginative power.” She is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, she taught writing for many years at Princeton, and, with her late husband, Raymond Smith, she edited the influential literary journal, The Ontario Review. If there is any longer such a thing as “American literary culture,” Oates may be at the center of it.
She has also received some hostile reviews. James Wolcott wrote in a 1982 Harper’s essay, “Stop Me Before I Write Again”:
In a typical Oates novel, the reader is treated (if that is the word) to a series of “big scenes” connected by a lot of flimsy, careless doodle. . . . . Oates slops words across the page like a washerwoman flinging soiled water across the cobblestones. Oates’ books . . . are wonders of reckless energy and dishevelment.
Wolcott’s complaints have become commonplace among reviewers: that Oates’ novels are overlong; that she is energetic but undisciplined; that her talent exceeds her taste.
Oates has large resources as a writer. Her plots are often elegantly constructed. She credibly inhabits the minds of a broad range of fictional characters. She is, notably, the laureate of two distinct regions—Western New York, where she was raised, and Detroit, where she lived and taught during the 1960s.
She has, however, spent much of her career as a novelist evading the very realist project for which those gifts make her so well suited. A number of her 58 published novels belong essentially to the horror genre, others to Gothic pastiche. She has written frequently about serial killers, a subject about which too much has already been written. When she cuts close to the bone, as in We Were The Mulvaneys (1996) or Because It Is Bitter, And Because It Is My Heart (1990), she is as alive to American reality as anyone. Yet some restlessness in her often gets in the way.
Oates’s new novel, Babysitter, returns her to familiar territory and themes. Set in and around Detroit in 1977, it is narrated mainly by Hannah Jarrett, a rich suburban housewife and the mother of two children. The main engine of the plot is Hannah’s affair with the nearly anonymous “Y. K.,” a man she meets briefly at a benefit event and who sees in her a dark erotic longing that she has not acknowledged to herself. The “Babysitter” of the title is a serial killer who has been stalking the children of suburban Detroit, abusing them, and leaving their corpses neatly staged. Another subplot involves a pedophile sex ring organized by a Catholic priest. These plotlines, of course, eventually merge.
Babysitter opens with a refractory technique that Oates used to good effect in Black Water (1992), her imagining of the Chappaquiddick scandal. The same scene is replayed with slight variations. In Black Water, it is the final, drowning moments of the Mary Jo Kopechne figure. In Babysitter, it is Hannah’s movement through the public spaces of a downtown business hotel for her first meeting with Y. K.:
As the sleek glass cubicle ascended swiftly and unhesitatingly to the sixty-first floor, so she makes her way to the suite that is his. A faint odor of cigar smoke in her hair, in her nostrils that pinch with nausea so remote as to be merely residual, memory. What is she wearing? A costume she has chosen with care, white linen is always discreet, a silk shirt, red silk Dior scarf gaily at her throat.
These pages are intensely suspenseful, and they persuasively sketch Hannah’s brittleness—her radical uncertainty, despite her arresting beauty, about the reality of her social being.
The sexual violence that is inflicted on Hannah by Y. K. in this and other hotel rooms is described in very strong terms, too strong to quote at length here. For Oates, the salient fact of male sexual desire is not that it is progenitive but that it is predatory (“a man’s hunger: less personal and particular than it is in a woman”), just as the salient fact of being female is the need to strike a bargain with that desire. This is not false—Hannah’s transactional marriage is just such a bargain, and it is a recognizable one—but it is not the whole truth, either. I don’t suppose Oates means to say that it is. Her novels do reflect, however, a murkily Freudian view of human sexuality.
It is not clear how we’re meant to feel about Hannah Jarrett. I’m not sure Oates herself knows. Hannah is victimized but also cooperates in her own victimization. She lies about having been raped by a black man in order to deceive her husband about her affair. She entertains her lover’s plot to murder the same husband. As a rich, idle white woman complicit in her own stifling by the patriarchy (“if a woman is not desired, a woman does not exist”), Hannah lies half inside and half outside the zone of Oates’ concerns. Hannah’s outstanding achievement is that she is very pretty, which, in a Joyce Carol Oates novel, means that she is also prey.
Oates is of strong feminist disposition, but she seems to have a slantwise relation to third-wave feminism. The customary gesture now is to depict historical women as exerting more agency than a patriarchal society meant to give them. Hannah has no agency at all. She is merely a cushion into which Oates sticks her pins. Hannah is not even able to enjoy the privileges of her status. She is afraid of the waiters and parking attendants and hotel clerks that serve her, imagining a porous border between their seething resentments and actual violence: “Of course they call her ma’am, in that other lifetime they’d slashed the throat of ma’am nearly decapitating the blond head.”
For Babysitter to succeed, Hannah’s unlikely behavior with Y. K. must be made to seem, within the novel’s own dream logic, foreordained. For me, it was not. Oates gives Hannah enough self-awareness to narrate her privileged world (“Renaissance Plaza is the ‘new’ Detroit: luxury hotels, spectacular new office buildings, high-rise apartments and condos, a prestigious medical suite”), if only to give Oates herself the pleasure of ironizing it. A woman equipped with such understanding, however, would not also be likely to be drawn into the trap that yields the core of Babysitter’s plot. Oates wants Hannah self-aware and observant when it suits her authorial needs, but the very narrative that Oates has constructed also requires Hannah to be morally and intellectually inert.
It’s not that one cannot imagine a restless, beautiful, and sexually unfulfilled woman such as Hannah being lured into a dangerous affair. It’s not that one cannot imagine that same woman risking everything for such an affair. The sex depicted in Babysitter, however, is of such a nature (“her stomach and thighs are covered in bruises, red welts on the insides of her thighs like an animal’s clawing”) that its attractions for Hannah are not satisfactorily explained by her past relationship with her abusive father; by her boredom with marriage and family; or by resort to universalizing concepts such as masochism or Freud’s death drive. These are merely psychological clichés. There are, surely, women (and some men) who derive erotic pleasure from being brutalized, for reasons that they may not understand. A novel that depicts such brutalization, however, had better justify it; in that sense, the rules of fiction are more rigorous than those of life.
It is possible to describe the mechanical plot of Babysitter, which certainly does not lack for incident and color and which hurries along with Oates’s customary brio. It is also possible to discuss the novel’s broad themes, which will be familiar to Oates readers. The difficulty is in accepting Babysitter as a unity—as driven by some teleological purpose, however vague.
This brings us to the frequent complaint that Oates writes too much, which is to say, too quickly. Oates has described her creative process as “an invasion of voices.” Inspiration is often a false friend to writers; febrile writing is rarely good writing. Of course, Updike wrote a lot, too, and he was subject to the same complaints. As Oates told the Paris Review, “It may be the case that we all must write many books in order to achieve a few lasting ones.”
While other novelists lose faith in their talent, are diverted by politics, or question their place in the culture, Joyce Carol Oates, now 84, just keeps writing and publishing. Some of her work seems very likely to endure. Babysitter, though, represents Oates at her most doubtfully motivated.
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