Oates stories tread precariously close to melodrama; A Sentimental Education, by Joyce Carol oates. New York: E. P. Dutton. $11.95.
It sometimes seems that Joyce Carol Oates is the pen name of a syndicate or guild of writers numbering anywhere from a score to infinity, all of them tirelessly engaged in the production of literary works in all modes, with the exception so far of Homeric epics, French bedroom farce, and heroic couplets. They do not stop to sup (Oates herself has spoken publicly, in scathing terms of unconcealed contempt, of eating as a necessary evil), and they try not to nod off now and then (she also speaks of writing from morning till night).
How else can we account for the awesome flow of books from her workshop -- novels, collections of shorter fiction, plays, poems, essays in literary criticism, not to mention merely edited works, the lot coming close to two-score volumes, and Oates still so very young? -- so willowy, so frail-looking, so impassive and heavy lidded, so cooly appraising (all this to be noted in the jacket photograph)?
Other serious writers have been massively productive, of course, but not many and not recently; the meat grinders of popular trash and kitsch needn't be considered here, or anywhere, save in ledgers of double-entry bookkeeping.
It is tempting to seek the key to the marvel in the quality of the work itself -- the hectic, taut, edgy, driven, obsessed and obsessive, perfervid quality of the fictions long and short and in-between.With Oates, there is never an easy moment: no laughter, not even a smile. Why should there be? -- nothing is funny; there's nothing to laugh about.m Not even a restful pause, as if demons were in pursuit and to pause were death. Characters and situations begin near the edge, move closer to the precipice, stare horrified into the abyss. Moving in the direction of their inevitable undoing is the only route open to them -- there is no reprieve or retreat.
In fact, one of the stories in the current collection of five plus a novella (the ironically titled "A Sentimental Education" -- irony being one of the characteristic "voices" of Oates's fiction, dread being the other) is called "The Precipice," a complex portrait of an apparently gentle, civilized, donnish man, shy, easily embarrassed, a "quaint folksy blend," the narrator fatuously says, "Quaker and agnostic and Marxist and Spinozist."
Yet, so often in Oates, beneath that rational exterior the governing force runs quite beyond the reach of a controlling and meditative mind. The man, we perceive, is bent on his own destruction, driven by a pathological need for violence with himself as its invariable victim, always of course for the "best" reasons.
Savagely beaten by hoodlums prior to the onset of the action, he has just been beaten again, almost to blindness and death; and we know from the first line that he is marching lockstep toward his final undoing. Those brutal goons there, swilling beer, obscenely taunting that inoffensive young woman -- he can't permit that to happen, can he, whatever the consequences to himself? If he does, where then is morality and is the moral meaning of "witness"? This is the story's last moment, as he steps forward to defend her honor, with what lethal consequences we have always known and long awaited.
The narrative pull is strong, and the craft with which it is impelled is deft -- Oates can be and is a formidable writer. Yet the story leaves in its wake disturbing unanswered questions which finally undermine its aesthetic power to compel our willing assent. Who is this strange man? Apart from the abiding mystery of the irrational, what makes him what he is? Where does the specific will-to-death originate? Oates never bothers with such mundane matters, but it is precisely these that give fiction solidity, density, persuasiveness, reality.
So with the other stories in varying degree. Great gaps in the imaginative fabric appear as if they were not worth bothering about: How is it that the man in "A Middle Class Education" (again an ironic title), having witnessed a random murder, falls apart, crumbles utterly into a kind of madness? Denied any other knowledge of him, what are we to make of it?
How can the middle-aged woman in "Queen of the Night" so abruptly descend into a nightmare marriage with a depraved youth, who may for all we know be the devil himself? Not thism woman, we keep thinking, surely not this one; and when a reader is driven so to think, the breach between the reader and tale becomes destructive of the trust that underlies the aesthetic compact.
And this is damagingly true even of the novella, the major work of the collection, in ambition as well as length, scope, complexity. Marvelous elements, many of them, as almost always in Oate's work -- accomplished craft, adroit writing, canny insight, and narrative cunning; but is the terrible violence --here, the girl's murder at the boy's hands in this grotesque reversal of the adolescent love-idyll -- adequately grounded in motivational reality? Is the girl the boy's victim, or merely the author's?
Oates takes high risks out there in the ratified air where experience borders on hysteria: When she succeeds, she does so brilliantly; when she does not -- when sheer will and manipulative intelligence do the work of the imagination -- hysteria casts its pall and yields the author and us her versions, not of high art, but of gothic and melodrama and mere trickiness decked out as metaphysics and mystery.