Joyce Carol Oates is among the most able American novelists writing today and belongs in a long tradition of serious literary novelists who also had broad popular appeal, including her American predecessors, Edith Wharton and Henry James, as well as their British counterparts, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and earlier, Fanny Burney. Some of her detractors have been suspicious of a writer whoseproductivity is nothing short of staggering, and they have tended to underestimate her talent, complaining of the looseness of her writing, the sensationalistic nature of many of her stories, and her lurid imagination.
Her recent books invite some comparisons with the writing of John Updike and Saul Bellow. She and Updike share an uncanny knack for understanding middle America, suburbia, and thetemper of the times. Updike, too, shares Oates's delight in witches, although the two treat their subjects quite differently. Bellow and Oates have less in common, although both see themselves as novelists of ideas and both have written in a comedic and parodic style about the academy. Bellow is a wittier writer and the more elegant stylist. Both authors have very recently produced imaginativeaccounts of public figures, prompting critics to ponder the motives behind their choice of subject and to raise interesting questions about the relationship between a writer and real life and how those relationships translate themselves in fiction.
Bellow's novel, Ravelstein, and Oates's novel, Blonde, take as their subject Allan Bloom and Norma Jean Baker—"Marilyn Monroe," respectively. Both authorsmade their careers at universities and both fill their books with references and allusions to the world of ideas and literature. Bloom, the real man behind the fictive Ravelstein, was a professor in the Committee of Social Thought at the University of Chicago and a close friend of the author. He was heralded as the darling of the right wing conservatives when his book, The Closing of the AmericanMind, was at the height of its popularity. Blonde 's subject is the life of the very troubled woman-made-star and sex goddess, whose screen image circulated globally, receiving more adulation and attention than most any other star in this century. Oates is the latest of a number of famous artists and writers who have chosen to write about or paint Monroe, including Gloria Steinem, Norman Mailer,and Ed Paschke.
Oates's decision to write about Norma Jean Baker is not unexpected. It allows her to immerse herself in the distorted psychosexuality of the woman and write about the sex act with an abandon and graphic literalness that has increasingly become part of her style in recent writings. In Zombie she takes on the voice of a sexual-psychopathic serial killer, Quentin P. With chillingeffect, she enters the mind of the killer, utterly devoid of conscience, assuming his stream-of-consciousness. She showed her interest in public figures earlier in Black Water where she treated the drowning at Chippaquiddick. Her taste for stories that make screaming headlines and haunt the public imagination for many years to come is one of her trademarks.
The process of myth making that transformsa life into ballads, legends, and stories has long fascinated her. She is intrigued by cult figures and the way they reflect the subterranean needs of their age. Her propensity to write about seemingly vacuous women, usually illegitimate, self-destructive, spoiled, beautiful, and empty, although often in fact, highly intelligent, has been in evidence since her very earliest novels.
Oates mayhave taken Marilyn for her subject in order to guarantee herself book sales, but a more important motive was probably her desire to write about a woman whose image as much as any other female star in American film—including such greats as Greta Garbo or Ingrid Bergmann—has captured the American psyche and achieved iconic proportions that ensure her a place in twentieth-century cultural history. The...
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