I turned into a kid in a candy store (or a bull in a china shop) upon graduation with a B.A. in English. I finally had the freedom to choose who and what I would read. I remember vividly my first trek to the local branch of the library near our downtown apartment. I was on a mission to read, read, read. But, when I got there, I felt overwhelmed and confused. What should I read? Where should I begin?
In my confusion, I turned to familiarity. I remembered the short story class I had taken from my least favorite professor and decided to read more from an author I had discovered there. We had read her ultra famous “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Yes, I am talking about Joyce Carol Oates.
I dashed to the “O” section of fiction and began grabbing her books. I began with Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, and from there read nearly everything that branch had. We eventually moved to the suburbs, so I found a new library branch and attacked their Joyce Carol Oates section. I all, I have read 18 of her books, yet as of March 2011, she had written 56 novels, 32 collections of short stories, and numerous poems, plays, essays, book reviews, and non-fiction books on academic and literary subjects. I don’t know if I will ever read all of her work, but I certainly tried when I was on my Joyce Carol Oates bender.
My favorite of her novels is Blonde, a fictional biography of actress Marilyn Monroe. I have read this 738-page novel twice. Yes, it is that good. I do not usually reread books, but there are a handful of books that I have, and this is one of them. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, a national bestseller, and the New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
The novel traces young Norma Jean’s development as a child shuttled between homes and damaged by her unstable mother’s actions. The novel follows Norma Jean through her early marriage, the start of her career as a young model, and her eventual rise to fame and marriages to the Ex-Athlete and The Playwright. The most compelling theme is Norma Jean’s wish to know her father. From the beginning to the end of her life as it is portrayed in this novel, she is desperate to know her father. She demonstrates the fate of fatherless children, especially girls. She seeks for love and never finds it, and her notion of it is mixed up and muddled.
The novel ends, of course, with her demise, yet knowing the end from the beginning is not off putting in this story as it usually is for me. Oates writes with such aplomb and skill that the story’s familiarity is no barrier to enjoyment. If you never read any of Oates’s other work, this is the one you should read.
Most of Oates’s work is dark and dense. The themes are complex and sometimes involve political or social issues with no obvious solution. Her characters struggle against these issues and often have experiences that I think most “normal” people don’t because we are too busy living in the suburbs and sitting on our couches eating bonbons while reading. For me, these messed up characters are vicarious living in a way that allows me to be relieved that my life isn’t quite that complicated.
Now, because of my admiration for Oates, I once wrote her a letter. I can’t remember where I sent it, either to her publisher or Princeton, where she is a professor. I never received a response. But I am not blaming Oates. She is a busy woman, busy being the most prolific author in the United States. She also teaches college students and writes academically. Okay, I was mostly disappointed, but my letter wasn’t especially memorable. It was short, and probably said things like, “Your books are really good.” I am sure she was hoping for more descriptive and knowledgeable praise. Perhaps if I had used bigger words or riffed on the juxtaposition of sociopolitical themes with allegorical elements, she would have had her interest peaked and been more inclined to answer back.
Here’s a list of the novels by Joyce Carol Oates that I have read.
A Garden of Earthly Delights
Big Mouth and Ugly Girl
Broke Heart Blues
Do With Me What You Will
Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang
I’ll Take You There
Middle Age: A Romance
My Heart Laid Bare
Triumph of the Spider Monkey
We Were the Mulvaneys
Have you read any of Joyce Carol Oates’s work? Do you like it, or is her fiction too dark? Am I missing any of her great novels on my list?