TOO OFTEN, CRITICS of the work of Joyce Carol Oates present the fact that she has written so much as something to abhor or, at best, as cause for dismay, rather than admiration. Also, far too often, critics take Oates to task for the apparent shapelesness of her fiction and for a seeming reluctance to devote her attention to the craft of fine writing. A third persistent unfairness is that while we praise high rhetoric and the grotesque in fiction from Latin America and the Caribbean, we dislike it in the work of Joyce Carol Oates.
Why is this? Are most critics who object to Oates' fiction, by sniffing in the direction of her amazing productivity, by grumbling about her sprawling, formless novels and the flacid imprecision of her language, and by cringing in the glare of her imagery and the contorted psyches of her characters -- are these critics, by these means, avoiding the obligation to say something more difficult and dangerous?
Oates' new novel, Bellefleur seems an appropriate occasion to answer that question. It is a large, ambitious book, a family saga covering six generations in 558 pages with uncomfortably narrow margins. According to the jacket copy, Bellefleur "may be considered the mythic culminatin of Joyce Carol Oates' remarkable, on-going portrait of American life."
Bellefleur is the name of a family, a dynasty, a village in a region remarkably like the Adirondacks in upstate New York, and a literal castle in which have resided all the generations of Bellefleurs since Raphael, who built the stone monstrosity in the 1800s. Because of the elaborate digressions and flashbacks, a plot synopsis in less than 10,000 words would be difficult, but the main story covers a period of approximately four years and 10 months in the recent past, from the night Leah and Gideon Bellefleur conceive their daughter, Germaine -- an event signaled by the storm-tossed arrival at the castle door of a monster that, when dried, brushed and fed, turns out to be a cat Leah names Mahalaleel -- to Germaine's fourth birthday, when Gideon deliberately crashes a planeload of explosives into the castle and destroys it, himself, his mistress and and all the remaining members of the huge Bellefleur family, except for Germaine and three or four others.
When a plot grossly outweighs the main story, as it does here, the form is inefficient or else the novel is satirical. Bellefleur is definitely not satirical. It is an incredibly elaborate gothic romance, stuffed to overflowing with outsize, grotesquely intense characters who speak to one another breathlessly, in a rage or merely incoherently, and who beg to be taken as emblems for moral qualities or historical forces, or both. Leah Bellefleur, who seems to be the central character, is a giant, "astonishingly" beautiful, and obsessed with reacquiring the 3 million-acre Bellefleur fiefdom that had been bought, stolen and extorted by her great-great-grandfather, Jean-Pierre. The novel's forward momentum, such as it is, comes from the question of whether or not Leah will succeed in her attempt to reestablish that empire. Of course, in the end, just as her husband (also her first cousin) Gideon crashes into the castle, she reaches her goal. There are, among the survivors, Leah and Gideon's three children, the twins Bromwell and Christabel and the 4-year-old birthday girl, Germine. Bromwell has left the castle, significantly, to pursue his career as a physicist concerned especially with time and, yes, destiny; Christabel has long ago left the family confines for a quiet life with an upwardly mobile bank officer; and Germaine has been removed by her father from the castle and placed across Lake Noir with a few elderly relatives attempting to die peacefully beyond the reaches of the Bellefleur curse. Other characters include Gideon's uncle, Vernon Bellefleur, the poet, who is slain by a mob for reciting his verses in public; Jean-Pierre II, brother of Vernon, who is a mass-murderer; Nightshade, the dwarf who bit off Gideon's finger and is now Leah's personal man-servant; and so on, for there are dozens more like these, and none of them, dear reader, is much like you or me.
One is led to believe that, except for the Bellefleurs not killed in Gideon's coflagration, all carry "the Bellefleur temperament," sometimes called "the Bellefleur curse." This temperament results from "an unfortunate combination of passion and melancholy." Over and over, we see demonstrated the belief that "the Bellefleur 'blood' brought with it a certain capricious melancholy, a propensity for energy and passion that might be countered at any time by a terrifying bleakness, a queer emptiness of vision . . ." These observations are set up by Raphael Bellefleur in referring to his grandfather, the first American Bellefleur, Jean-Pierre, who "was banished from France and repudiated by his own father, the Duc de Bellefleur." After that, "the past simply ceased to exist. 'We are all Americans now,' Raphael said.