By Jane Smiley
Monday, January 4, 2010; C01
A FAIR MAIDEN
By Joyce Carol Oates
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 165 pp. $22
In the Museum of Joyce Carol Oates, there are a multitude of galleries: the gallery of etchings, in which a single figure is captured for a moment; the gallery of portraits, in which a man or woman is seen whole and contemplated at length; and the gallery of panoramas, in which a world arranges itself in perspective. There are galleries of pop art and galleries that remind you of Goya's late period and galleries in which the figures loom so large that every pore and hair is explored. The Museum of Joyce Carol Oates expands several times a year. I prefer the etchings, myself, but the thing I most appreciate about the museum is how capacious and daring it is. "A Fair Maiden" is a work that is not going to get a room of its own, or even a wall of its own, but it will fit neatly into the portrait gallery, and it deserves contemplation.
The fair maiden in question is Katya, a 16-year-old working as a nanny for a sour, nouveau riche family summering on the Jersey shore. One day, while pushing the baby carriage down the street, looking in upscale shop windows, she is noticed by an elegant old man, who is both kind and suspect. Locally famous, too. Pretty soon the seduction has begun, but in an Oates work, the question of who is seducing whom remains undecided until the end of the novel (which is short).
We might ask ourselves why we keep returning to the Museum of Joyce Carol Oates. Few if any of us have visited every room, experienced every work. For me, the attraction is not theme; Oates is not analytical. Her America -- violent, ugly and spiritually bereft -- comes with no theories of cause and effect. Nor is the attraction rooted in variety; no Oates work I've ever read modulates into the lyrical or the transcendent or even the altruistic. Oates's characters are selfish, cruel or brutal, and it gets worse from there.
In "A Fair Maiden," Katya is kind to her charges and sometimes appreciates them, but she has no notion of actual love because she has never experienced it. Nor does Katya's elderly admirer, Marcus Kidder, have love to offer, though he grasps at various notions of beauty, generosity, shared experience and mystical affinity. Oates implies that love isn't there to experience. What Kidder wants from Katya she can't understand, and what Katya wants from Kidder she does not know.
Oates's world is our world: crass at best and vile at worst, and American to the core. But we keep returning, and we do so for the same reason I went on with "A Fair Maiden" -- not because Marcus and Katya are winning or even enlightening, but because Oates's ability to plot is like no other writer's. It's as if she has a direct channel to the reader's mind. Just when the novel or story becomes too disagreeable (or too true, depending on your view of things) to continue with, she offers a little twist of action or motivation that turns a few more pages, and the reader wonders all over again, how did she think of that?
Every hugely productive artist risks repeating herself or so dispersing her focus that each single work loses meaning, but the Museum of Joyce Carol Oates is a wonder of imagination and invention. It is a monument to a writer who will try anything and who quite often pulls it off. I prefer the shorter works to the longer ones for just this reason: They are more ruthlessly daring, and they don't linger, attempting to convince. Like Kafka, Oates simply states that something happened and depicts it in a concrete way and leaves the reader to suspend disbelief or not.
The reward for suspending disbelief, of course, is that the next thing happens. Oates's second novel, published when she was 29, was titled "A Garden of Earthly Delights." Surely Oates knew that her world was and would continue to be as fascinating and detailed as a triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, that we would be invited to stand before it, repelled, intrigued, amazed, seduced, and that we would have never seen anything like her world before, at least in art.
Smiley's most recent novel is a horse book for girls, "The Georges and the Jewels."