Joyce Carol Oates is an american writer (Lockport, NY 1938) who published her first novel in 1963; since then she’s published over 40 novels (plus novellas, short fictions & stories, young children & young adults fiction, drama, essays and memoirs, poems & so on). She won the National Book Award in 1964 for her novel them and many of her books were finalists for the Pulitzer Price. She has taught creative writing for many years at Princeton University. Also, she’s published under the names of Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly. This represents an exceptionally vast work.
Frequent topics in her work are rural poverty, sexual abuse, class tensions, desire for power, female childhood & adolescence and, occasionally, the supernatural. Violence is also a constant in her writing. In fact, she writes with gripping accuracy about everything (she reminds me so much of Honoré de Balzac’s style through the accuracy of each detail). And I felt more at ease reading on such topics with her than in many other authors. The resulting effect is a vivid and precise photography of each scene. Her sentences seem to contain more sentiment per word than anyone else’s as though she was a tormented soul. Oates cuts through the fabric of America’s materialistic facade to expose the heart inside.
I have read many of her books; but I could’nt finish some of them : too rough, too sharp. Maybe I should try now, with maturity and some distance, to read all her novels because she really is an outstanding writer. Let’s say that lately I read Blonde (2000), the best book I’ve read about Marilyn Monroe and The Tattooed Girl (2003) a hard and raw novel about violence : an illeterate girl roughed up by life becomes a well- known Jewish writer’s assistant. She hates Joshua Seigl Jewish ascendance in a primitive way, but little by little she changes and broadens her views; when Joshua Seigl dies from a heart attack (heart attacks, iterative topic in her books), she becomes his sole heir but she’s murdered by Seigl’s sister who cannot accept this kind of usurpation.
Middle Age : a romance (2001), Hudson River (2004) in French, was a bestselling novel that year. It is a very good book, dark as usual and for the very first time, a little comic (by moments). It’s a tale about the comforts of the middle- age coming with their unmentionable tragedies : beautiful and idle wives who become bored and lonely, and their spouses who pursue younger women to feel alive ! The mothers sigh when their grown-up children leave the house; the fathers (so often absent from home) find that their children never loved them at all !
Anxieties about aging, mortality and declining sexual prowess, the violence of teenage rebellion spring from these pages. Middle age is settled in a perfect little town, a wealthy suburb half -an- hour by train from Manhattan, called Salthill-on-Hudson where rich people, elderly-rich (which is the very best kind of rich) own multimillion- dollar houses and drive Lexus or BMW’s & belong to dogooding causes. Men commute to TypeA jobs in Manhattan while wives spend their time planning social events & benefits. Those residents suffer from hypocrisy, snobbery & secret desperation. They are stereotyped middle-aged persons suffering from emptiness, worrying about losing their beauty (all women are beautiful but they all look alike : meringue hair, glaring cosmetic faces, piranha smiles, jewels that wink like semaphore signal and smelling a myriad of parfums. All these women are accustomed to not-seeing imperfections in men, though anxiously aware of the smallest imperfections in themselves) or their sex appeal; middle-aged men can become irresponsible with a return of passion, assuaging theirs fears of mortality by sleeping with young women. Is disillusion inevitable with middle-age? Or is it just a fact that, with the passage of time, things fracture, break, split into pieces? Or are middle-aged captives of the past? There was the dread of growing older ; always older. In America, that was the abyss. Indeed the topic is sharply analyzed by Ms Oates.!
Salthill-on-Hudson is an extreme example of a community’s obsession with maintaining the status quo and those who do not behave as expected are considered eccentric or in some cases pityed, but in this plot, they will be the only happy people in the community…
Adam Berendt is the central character of the novel. He is a man in his late fifties ( everything is a matter of age in this novel…), a sculptor without a past, and a very rich person although nobody knows anything about his fortune (...all along, Adam had been investing in Internet and biotech stocks, and real state, in utter secrecy from his friends. His brokers were scattered over four states, his saving accounts were under a half-dozen names...). Nobody knows who this man really is and where he comes from. This rather ugly and heavy man with his provocative intellect and perverse ugliness (including a blind eye) has incredible charisma in the little cosmos of Salthill, a kind of playful sexual swagger : everyone loves him, wives, spouses, children and even dogs. But this man is seduced by none. He dies at the very beginning of the novel, his death is redemptive and it leaves such an abyss in everyone’s life that many must try to get involved in local causes as a mean to maintain a sense of purpose. This man plays the role of a totem in this community.
About people surrounding Adam Berendt in the novel : Marina Troy, in her mid-thirties, is the red- haired owner of the bookshop and she loves Adam. She abandoned her dreams of becoming a sculptor; Abigail Des Pres, a still very beautiful divorcee, quite hysterical, so upset because her beloved son Jared left her, preferring to live with his father re-married with a younger woman; Lionel Hoffman, the « perfect » Lionel Hoffman so upset because his life hasn’t turned out to be what he hoped for and has an affair with his therapist; Roger Cavanagh, so upset as well, his wife left him; Augusta Cutter so upset because her husband and grown up children have no understanding of her « passionate inner life ».
The only person to whom these individuals have confided their disappointments in is Adam Berendt (the most implausible and bogus character Ms Oates created). But who was Adam Berendt? Was he a real hero or someone more flawed and human?
I was not totally convinced about the strange power of Berendt’s personnality over all these people. Really confused people in Salthill-on-Hudson.
This is a very good book, quite dark and profound and for the first time in my limited experience of Ms Oates’s books, hilarious. For instance Lionel Hoffman’s pathetic love affair, Abigail Des Pres’s experience with an aging poet…Devastatingly funny.
I was very surprised by the amount of though‘s I found in the text; sometimes several times in the same page.
In this novel Ms Oates reminds us to never lose our individuality. And My Gosh, what a writer.
MIDDLE AGE, Fourth State 2001, ISBN 1-84115-641-6