Review of Heat And Other Stories, by Joyce Carol Oates
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/24/07
When one thinks of the great mysteries in life one is often drawn to the spectacular, such as whether or not aliens in UFOs have landed or whether or not there ever was an Atlantis, or to the deep, such as what is the meaning of existence. Yet, just as great a mystery, to me, at least, is how a writer like Joyce Carol Oates has first gotten into print, and second, stayed there. Whenever I have read her stuff, here and there, in magazines, I am always amazed by how wholly generic and forgettable it is. The only time a metaphor like Oatesian can be used is not when describing a single thing within her writing, but when describing an excess amount of bilious anything, such as, ‘he let out an Oatesian amount of gas after leaving Taco Cabana.’ I recently read a book of her essays, so I know her nonfiction is similarly dull and flawed.
My point is, it’s not even a close call as to whether her stories are good or not. They suck. She was the original Chick Lit/Oprah writer. The tales in this book are far too long, far too dull, loaded with either dumb and generic characters and situations, or out and out stereotypes and caricatures. To make matters worse, the beginnings and, especially, the ends of her stories are atrociously trite, to the point one might even refer to them as T.C. Boylean. In fact, if one were to think of bug-eyed actress Shelley Duvall as Oates’ physical doppelganger, there’s no better writing doppelganger to compare Oates to in contemporary publishing than Boyle. Ok, you’d need to add a cheesy beard, a hipster earring, and an unwashed salami in the underpants, but you get my point.
Like Boyle, Oates has never seemed to meet a convention she couldn’t drape a story upon, nor a trite situation she couldn’t find exciting. Too bad that none of that excitement comes through to her readers. In Leila Lee, for instance, a well meaning but morally suspect woman marries a rich widower who emotionally abuses and mistreats his dull young son. In Heat, which seems to be the state with which Oates writes her worst stories, as they always seem to involve libidinous ladies on the hunt for a meat stake to impale themselves upon, the story involves murder, a hot summer day, and twin girls about to meet their doom. Oates, in these sorts of tales, actually makes one appreciate the unpretentious crapola of a schlockmeister like Stephen King, for, in between the bad horror level writing, Oates likes to slip in none too sly Feminazi digs like:
I was scared but I was happy too. Except for our faces, their face and mine, we could all be the same girl.
The Swimmers is yet another tale where Oates clumsily shows she has no real concept of real violence, nor political violence. Say what you will about the way a Raymond Carver handled violence in his tales- they could be clumsy, as well, but at least he leavened his with humor, in an almost Hitchcockian manner, to relieve the steam. Oates’ fascination with serial killers shows too much in these Lesser Guignol tales, and read more like a raging PMS scream.
Her attempts at dealing with domesticity fare no better. In House Hunting a husband in a bad marriage looks for a home in suburban Philadelphia. In Capital Punishment a masochistic daughter engages in civil disobedience, and her father has to bail her out. In Shopping a divorced mother and her teen daughter go to a mall. Guess what? They ain’t on the best of terms. Here is a typical Oatesian ‘deep moment’:
Seeing Nola now, Mrs. Dietrich is charged with hurt, rage; the injustice of it, she thinks, the cruelty of it, and why, and why? And as Nola glances up, startled, not prepared to see her mother in front of her, their eyes lock for an instant and Mrs. Dietrich stares at her with hatred.
To get a real sense of Oates’ abilities, overall and in this book, puff this sentiment up to a whole story, and then multiply by twenty-five, the number of tales in this bloated tome. Now, you’ll get the full horror with which I had to deal with. One has to wonder what was the last calendar year an editor really had the balls to confront Oates on her overwriting and lack of originality? I guess when your drooling diehard readership are willing to suck in whatever fudge you shit, there’s no reason to expect any editing.
The book is divided into three sections, and the last is the horror and fantasy section. Here, Oates is at her very worst, with grown children who abandon their elderly parents to die on desert islands- sort of the inverse of what Eskimos do, and psycho-babies who chew up their mothers’ breasts while nursing. But, I’ve spent far too much time on the tales from a macro perspective. Let me get more micro, more basic; down and dirty, if you will. Let me take a very functional approach with the starts and ends of her stories, because Oates never takes a reader to a higher place anyway. She’s simply incapable of such a task.
Let’s take a look at the starts and ends of some of her tales, and just examine the awkward phrasing, unsubverted clichés, and sheer banality. One gets a taste of the horror to come from the very first sentence of the very first story in the book, House Hunting. When a book starts like this, you know it’s not a good sign, and you’re doomed:
How subtly the season of mourning shaded into a season of envy.
Look at the awkward phrasing, the almost Victorian ponderousness. Yet, it’s hard, with just this sample, to descry whether this is intentionally bad- in a failed attempt at some humor, or whether Oates is just clueless as to what makes for good writing. For contrast, here is the start of another story, The Swimmers:
There are stories that go unaccountably wrong and become impermeable to the imagination. They lodge in the memory like an old wound never entirely healed.
Aside from the fact that the first sentence is eerily apt, especially when applied to Oates’ own oeuvre, it’s also a good opener. But, look at the horrid second sentence, which totally undermines the novel opener. What a horrendous cliché! Herein is the proof that Oates has no idea the difference between good and bad writing. If she did she would never have lifted a reader up, even a little, then dropped them so flat so quickly.
But, if Oates’ starts are nothing to write home about (see, I can be trite, too), then her endings are off the charts in their inanity. Let’s look at the end of House Hunting:
So close to extinction, to move was a thousand miles.
Ask yourself, how many times has a variant of the metaphor of a miss by an inch is as good as a thousand miles been used? And, no, there is not some dazzling wordplay that precedes this last sentence, to alleviate what you have read. I am not selectively quoting to bias a reader, merely to spare you more bad writing and pain. I am a kind man, dear reader. Deal with it.
As proof that the woman thinks in total clichés, here now is the end of The Knife:
That evening she would tell her husband about the rape. And what would happen, as a consequence, would happen.
Close your jaw. I see it scraping the concrete. Yes, she literally ends with a que sera sera ending: what will happen will happen. This is mindnumbing in its banality. That any writer, much less as big a name as Oates is, could remotely think that these sentences were a good way to end a tale is mind-boggling.
Oh, but you only gave us two sentences now. You must be cheating, trying to bias us. Ok, here’s a three sentence end from The Hair:
What would become of them now? Something tickled her lips, a bit of lint, a hair, and though she brushed it irritably away the tingling sensation remained. What would become of them, now?
You see, it gets no better, whether I were to quote the last five or ten or fifty sentences of a tale. She literally ends with what would become of them, now? I did not make that up. It’s the actual end to a story. Of course, irredeemable clichés are not the only way to poorly end a tale. Sometimes just being plain old dull can suffice. Here’s the end of Passion as proof:
It frightened him, the emotion he felt- its crudeness, violence. He wondered was it passion. He wondered was it anything to which he might give a name.
I don’t lie, do I? But, I am not going to let the matter lie just yet. Here are three more examples, before I’m done, so that the case against Oates is irrefutable. Let’s go back to plain old clichés. Here’s the end of Morning:
It was the first morning of her new life.
You must be asking yourself, what in the hell could Oates be thinking, with these ends? Especially by ending a tale called Morning with a reference to….morning, much less referencing a new life? Therein lies the point. Oates was not thinking. She does not think. She simply bangs away furiously at her typewriter, never pausing for a moment of craft, never thinking of revisions. All these tales, from start to end in the book, and from start to end in each tale, reek of being first drafts, and bad ones, at that. They are a total mess. They are far too long for their anomic narratives and weak imagery to support.
Still doubtful? Here’s the end of The Swimmers:
So the brothers discussed their predicament, as dark came on.
Um, exactly how many times has this last phrase been used? Maybe….maybe Anton Chekhov could get away with ending a tale like this. Again….maybe. But, a hack like Oates cannot, because she does not treat the reader to a narrative and psychological feast beforehand, like Chekhov would.
Now, here’s the last one, I promise. This ends Twins:
I am married, I have children, I have my work, I am rarely alone and yet always lonely, and I’m wondering: Is this common? Will it get worse? Is it something you can die of?
No, it won’t get any worse than this solipsistic and dull end. No more of Oates’ cliché indulging prose. The woman is absolutely clueless as to what constitutes good, much less great, writing, on both the macro and micro level. Her prose is as banal as it comes, in its phrasing and in its narrative and character development. Even the very premises for her tales are something from an addle-minded and horny housewife’s worst sexual fantasies when applying a dildo to herself. Need I say Oates lacks all subtlety?
Even the very titles of the story lack imagination: Heat, Passion, Naked, The Boyfriend, Family. Need I go on? Yes, just a little more. I do not necessarily lay all the blame on Oates, of course. Had there been a decent, upright, and literature loving professor when she was young, who was truly honest with her, and told her, ‘Joyce, listen up. You have absolutely no writing talent, and no amount of practice, no amount of study, and surely no amount of flesh fluting my cock is going to miraculously bring said talent upon you. Give it up, find a nice insurance agent to marry, and you’ll be happy with your little life. We all will,’ then we would not have the 527 bad books, to date, of Oates’ cluttering up library shelves, and singlehandedly causing an ecological disaster by wiping out forests in Brazil to print her garbage. After all, a century from now, no one will know Joyce Carol Oates existed, save some antique book dealer who sneezes when plucking her garbage from the backs of decrepit shelves.
Herein lie the lessons of where honesty in art is truly worthwhile, and not. Joyce, darling, baby, give it up. Please, give up this insane idea that has somehow twisted your little brain into the delusion that you can write. If you really care about literature, end the charade now. I’ll feel better. The world will feel better. In fact, it will be better, not just in feeling. But, most of all, I’m sure you’ll feel better. And, isn’t what Oprah says what matters, after all? In fact, it could very well be just like the first morning of your new life.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]
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