Back To The Books

Hello blogging friends! It was good to take some time out but it’s also nice to be back; I missed you all. I’m also glad to see the back of August this year, which was a dreary, oppressive kind of month. I’ve come to the conclusion that August, like January, is a seasonal low point and there is nothing much to be done about it, apart from removing all expectations of creative achievement. I think that September should be my month to catch up on all the book reviews I haven’t written, and then October will herald the start of the new academic year and the changes entailed by a new teaching position. I feel like I’m edging towards a precipice, although in reality I don’t expect very much will alter. I really must stop living one whole extra life in anticipatory fantasy, on top of my actual life which is altogether more ordinary.

Anyway, back to the books. Although I’ve read several novels that ought to have precedence over it, I’m going to review Joyce Carol Oates’ novel Mother, Missing, which I finished on the weekend. Despite Oates’ prodigious literary output, I’d only ever read one novella by her before - a slim bitter pill of a book called Beasts, about disquieting sexual relations between a student in a creative writing class and her professor. I remembered it as being starkly powerful, a book that didn’t pull its punches and wasn’t bothered about the reader’s moral sensibilities. I rather liked it for that, although I seem to recall that the ending wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped. My impression of Joyce Carol Oates was of an invasive, insidious writer, someone who didn’t seem to be doing very much on the page but who managed nevertheless to leave you queasy and alarmed. This sounds rather off-putting but it shouldn’t; Oates is not a comfortable writer, she isn’t going to tell you that everything is going to be fine, that people are good when you get right down to it, that our unresolved contradictions and humble kinds of shame will be wiped away by joyful, unexpected epiphanies. But precisely because of this her characters can often leap off the page and almost assault you with their pungent humanity. She is also remarkably accessible; I read Mother, Missing uncertain at various points across the narrative whether I really wanted to keep going, but simultaneously unable to put the book down. At almost 500 pages, it was a surprisingly quick read.

The story revolves around Nikki Eaton, a single thirty-something journalist with a married lover, Wally Szalla and a close relationship to her family. Her life is turned upside down when her mother, Gwen, is found violently murdered (no spoilers, this much is declared on the back cover) and Nikki is obliged to enter a period of grieving that profoundly alters her sense of identity. Joyce Carol Oates based the character of the mother on her own (also recently deceased) and says in an interview in the back of the book: ‘There is so very little that literature has been capable of saying about genuinely “nice”, “good”, “good-hearted” individuals that I took it as a sort of challenge to create a portrait of an unfailingly “nice” woman whose very “niceness” becomes a liability.’ Gwen Eaton is indeed portrayed as the perfect kind of good mother; she bakes, she sews, she nurtures; her life is given over to good deeds and charity works and she never has a cross word to say to anyone. She is not happy unless she is being helpful to some lame duck, extending her boundless generosity and her all-encompassing love. Yet it is these very qualities that put her in danger and result in her vicious murder. This conundrum is something both her daughters must struggle with in the aftermath of her death. When I reached the murder, I thought the novel would take a turn into crime fiction, but in fact it has no interest in this sort of puzzle. Instead the work of mourning becomes the mystery that Oates explores and she does so with tremendous intelligence. Mourning someone as essential as a mother messes with the calibrations of our soul, Oates suggests, so that everything we do is off-centre, distorted or out of kilter with our familiar responses. The emotional impact of this grief is heightened when the mother is someone so good, so loving, so kind, that her daughters have never really separated from her. When Gwen Eaton dies, she risks taking the good, loving parts of her daughters with her. In this way, I felt the novel was a subtle exploration of this whole concept of the Good Mother, and a quiet voicing of a number of doubts about its viability.

Where Oates excels is in her character portraits. They may not be people you like, but they will be people who fascinate. Nikki Eaton is something of a child-woman whose needy sexuality seems to be her only way to relate to others. Oates describes a period of intense change for her that begins when she moves back into her mother’s house and attempts to step into her mother’s shoes, taking on her schedule and her good works and her visiting. Her ‘bossy elder sister’, Clare, is a wonderfully vivid character who exasperated me so much I often felt I could give her a good shaking. Clare’s explosive, disruptive journey through grief acts as an intriguing counterpoint to Nikki’s compulsion to behave better, to become a more conventionally ‘good’ person. Most fascinating of all, Oates doesn’t allow Gwen Eaton to stagnate in death. As Nikki assumes her mother’s routine so she starts to come across the secret parts of her life that her mother had always hidden behind her coherent façade.

Overall, I found this to be a really interesting novel. It wasn’t one that I loved wholeheartedly, that I found a comfort read or a masterpiece of structure, but it conjured up a series of shadowy enigmas about mothers and daughters, about the process of grief, and about the strange, awkward transactions between people that we call charity, that remain with me still. What’s most intriguing in many ways is that Oates creates fictions that seem so very real and which are so very hard to resolve in neat and tidy ways. Apparently she writes with a quotation from Hitchcock above her desk to inspire her: ‘It’s only a movie, let’s not go too deeply into these things.’ I felt that was very fitting for a writer whose work depicts the complex surface of people’s lives whilst invoking in mysterious ways the deep, compelling and utterly unknown motivations that drive us in unexpected directions, but which we can never truly understand.

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17 thoughts on “Back To The Books

  1. Welcome back! I hope you had a nice break and rest. I think you are right about August. It is such a downer of a month and I have never figured out why. It is my least favorite month of the year. The Oates book sounds good. I have only read a short story or two of hers many, many years ago but your description of her writing makes me want to run to the library and grab a bunch of her books.

  2. Yes, I read Mother, Missing a couple of years ago and this review resonates. I read it in the wake of my own mother’s death (from cancer). I read it reluctantly because the pain of my loss was huge and I was scared that I might cause my truly fragile psyche to totally disintegrate yet I found that once started, I couldn’t not read to the end. Oates’ writing is compelling; the narrative unsensational, matter-of-fact, and devastating. She really puts it all out there – the horror of life turned upside down in a second; the gnawing guilt of things said, unsaid, not done, and the irrational, unbearable self-blame at not having prevented the death. I haven’t read any other Oates novel – which one might your readers recommend?

  3. I’m glad it’s September now, too! I always look forward to a new fall semester starting at work. I read Foxfire a long time ago, but I remember very little of it, and one of her short stories more recently. She does seem a an author of not too many happy endings. I hope to read Beasts sometime soon. She’s amazingly prolific and I feel like I really should have read more by her. That’s a really interesting quote she keeps nearby, but then I don’t think Hitchcock meant it either.

  4. I’ve been curious to read more Oates for a while now. She has so much to choose from though, that sometimes I get stopped at the sheer amount of her fiction. I read We Were the Mulvaneys as well as Rape: A Love Story and both fit the description you give here – thorny and difficult but engaging all the same. I will add Mother, Missing to the list and hopefully tackle it sometime in the future. Eventually, I’d like to read all of Oates I think, mainly because I do think her project has something to say “as a whole” as well as each individual book.

  5. Thorny yet real, is how I think of Oates’s writing. I read a few of her novels probably 15 years ago, and though I always found them to have interesting themes, somehow I never really loved her books. I would be interested to read her work again, now that I’m a little older.

    Welcome back, by the way! I’m happy August is finally over, too :)

  6. Welcome back and I really liked that review. I’ve never read Oates but she’s one of the authors on my list. This one sounds like an interesting variation on your mother theme. Chat again next week – I’m off on my spring (more like winter) break.

  7. Bravo! I’ve read tons of Oates, maybe half of her oeuvre (which, in this case, is saying quite a bit since, as verbivore notes, there’s so darn much!) and I think you really get at the heart of Oates considerable gifts as a writer. I agree that “her characters practically jump off the page and assault you with their pungent humanity” and that she is “a writer whose work depicts the complex surface of people’s lives whilst invoking in mysterious ways the deep, compelling and utterly unknown motivations that drive us in unexpected directions, but which we can never truly understand.” I’m quoting you because I certainly can’t come up with better words! And what you say is certainly true of the characters (Poe, Dickinson, James, Hemingway, Twain) in her recent volume, Wild Nights!—a kind of pseudo-memoir that delved into the last days of each writer. Let’s see. What have I especially enjoyed? Blonde (a novel featuring Marilyn Monroe) comes to mind and a short story collection from 2001 called Faithless: Tales of Transgression. I’ve not yet read Mother, Missing. Soon, very soon. Thanks! ~sadie

  8. Wonderful review – I’ve lingered over this book several times in the bookstore, wondering about it, so now I will definitely go back and pick it up.

    I’ve read several of her novels (We Were the Mulvaneys is probably my favorite) and some of her literary essays. I think you’ve captured the essence of her style, and I agree, she is masterful when it comes to creating characters. Her work always evokes a strong emotional reponse in me, so my real life needs to be calm enough to allow me the time and space to read her!

  9. Stefanie – it’s lovely to be back! A break does help to recharge the batteries. I would love to know what you think of Joyce Carol Oates – this or any of her novels. She’s very intriguing and I will certainly read more by her now. And yes, here’s to September! Anna – I am impressed by your courage in reading this after your own loss (and I’m so sorry to hear about that). Sometimes I think it can help a lot to read someone who can express one’s own confused emotions with beauty and clarity, and then sometimes it’s too painful to contemplate. Reading this novel, I really did feel that Oates had created a very authentic picture of mourning, so I’m very interested by what you say. I’m looking forward to other blogger’s recommendations too. I’ll certainly read more of her now. Danielle – lol! No, I don’t think Hitchcock meant it either! I found Beasts very intriguing – so quick to read, and quietly disturbing. But it’s taken a while to get around to more of her work. I remember Firefox coming out when I was working in the bookstore but I wasn’t sure about the girl gang angle. Still, I will certainly be reading more of her work now. Verbivore – and there I was commenting on your post in which you were wondering what direction to take after Gordimer! But Oates would be quite an author to take on, wouldn’t she? I have the Mulvaneys on my shelves and may well read that next. I know exactly what you mean about the sheer volume of her output being almost a drawback! Gentle Reader – it’s nice to be back here with you! Yes, Oates isn’t the kind of author you love, funnily enough, although I think she is prodigiously talented. I do wonder how different it would feel reading her grown-up, as it were, after reading her in one’s youth. I should think there might be quite a difference as she is such a subtle writer. Well, I would love to know what you think of anything you do read by her! Pete – first of all, have a wonderful time away! And I think you would find Oates very interesting, as she has a lot of insight into people’s paradoxical emotional states. I’d love to know what you think. Sadie – thank you for sharing your knowledge of Oates with us – that’s so helpful! I was certainly wondering what to read next, and I love the concept of Wild Nights. I shall definitely be hunting that one out in the very near future. And I’m really pleased if you think my description of her work rings true. I was very struck by her writing and the way it did have a very particular flavour. Becca – thank you very much! I have the Mulvaneys on my shelves and have been tempted to pick that up many a time, and now I certainly will. I know exactly what you mean about reading her in a quiet patch. I would think she could mess with your emotions quite successfully if you were feeling anxious! I’d like to read her literary essays, though. I’ll bet she has a lot of insight.

  10. Glad to have you back. I’ve read a few of her books, The Falls and Middle Age stand out in my mind. The Tattoed Girl was an emotional read and I found Solstice quite depressing but still compelling reading. I have two of hers waiting in line to be read – Blonde and The Gravedigger’s Daughter, which she says in an interview at the end of the book is “an imagined journey through the life of my ‘Jewish’ grandmother who had hidden her Jewishness, like most of her family background, from everyone including her husband and son.” I really enjoy Oates’s books – she seems to get to the core of things so well. I haven’t read Mother, Missing, but it sounds as though it’s another one that does “go deeply into things.” I see from the list of her books she has written a couple of children’s books – Come Meet Muffin! and Where is Little Reynard? I think it would be interesting to read these to compare with her adult books.

  11. Welcome back. I’ll e-mail you later in the day about the new job but I didn’t want to disturb your rest last week. I have Oates sitting on my shelf as one of those writers I must read, but somehow have never found time to get round to. I think I probably need to get hold of ‘We Were the Mulvaneys’ as most people suggest that as the best starting point. Take care and don’t do too much too soon.

  12. I’ve read exactly one Oates story (probably her most famous, “Where are you going …”), and perhaps I should read more of her work — I have no reason not to do it, it’s just that she’s never been that high on my list. I agree with Verbivore that since she’s written so much, it’s daunting to try to figure out what to pick up! Anyway, your description of her work fits very well with the one Oates story I know — it starts off very normally and then descends into something awful, and the transition is very well done.

  13. Hi! I thought about you yesterday as I spent the day with David Servan-Schreiber as he taped for a television special. He definitely challenged my normally very pro-western medicine assumptions.
    As for Oates, she is the kind of writer who can really beat her reader up. My favorites by her are “We Were the Mulvaneys” and the short story “Where are you going, where have you been” both of which are chilling in their different ways. I will add this one to my tbr list as well.

  14. Booksplease – yes, very interesting to read her children’s novels, and I’d like to read her more academic writing on books too. I’m so pleased you liked Middle Age and The Falls, as I have them both – yay! I did find this novel most intriguing and will certainly read more of her work now. Ann – you are so thoughtful, and thank you very much indeed for your email (to which I’ll reply very soon). The job is not proving restful at the moment, but I keep hoping it will improve! I did feel that Oates was an author I had overlooked, but she is very interesting, surprisingly accessible and worth the time. I’d like to read the Mulvaneys too. Dorothy – her output is incredible – 50 novels, loads of short stories. I wonder when she manages to do it all AND teach??? Interesting that it does seem as if she has a very particular voice. I’ll certainly be reading more of her now to see where else she goes with it. Courtney – wow! I’m kind of starry eyed about you working with DSS. I think he has very intriguing ideas. I like your phrase about Oates beating the reader up – this is so true! The Mulvaneys are certainly rising up to the top of the pile at the moment, and I do appreciate the recommendation. It is very difficult to know where to go next…

  15. What has always astonished me about Oates is that she is so astonishingly prolific, while holding a full-time job in academia, etc. Between her and William Vollmann, I’m surprised there’s a single ream of paper left in North America! These folks can produce quality work in QUANTITY and that is very, very rare in literature. 99.99% of the writers who approach their level of productivity are the worst, most derivative hacks. Vollmann and Oates are brilliant exceptions to the rule.

    Nice to have you back. Write on…

  16. Cliff – how lovely to have you drop by! Yes, I am amazed by Oates’ output and by its quality. I have never read William Vollmann, though and am intrigued now to look him up. If he is on the same level as Oates then I should certainly read something by him.

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