'TIS THE CUSTOM, when a new Work is inspir'd by a Classick, for the living Author to extend Apologies, as 'twere, to the Elder for the Debt, accept'd all too unwittingly, by the Author of old.
"Though 'tis clear that Mrs. Erica Jong is indebted in the extream to various Wits of the 18th Century, to wit: Mr. Pope, Mr. Fielding, Mr. Defore and that erotick blood, Mr. John Cleland, still, 'tis they who owe their Thanks to her. For by relating the True History of one Fanny Belher, also called Hackabout-Jones, Mrs. Erica has fill'd a most lamentable Gap left by these liter'ry Gentlemen and duly noted by many an English Major of the Female Sex.
For does it not stand to Reason that such bold Adventurers as Tom Jones should have a Couterpart in the Fair Sex, and not live in a World peopl'd but by wicked or simpering Stereotypes? Is it not simple Logick that a Woman, forc'd by Misfortune to fend for herself, should learn in consequence a wide View of Life, and not seek to suffer meek Retirement into narrow Virtue?
Mrs. Fanny, known to the Publick throu' the most audacious Lies and romantic Fancies of that Scamp, John Cleland, speaketh for herself in her own Journal faithfully set down by Mrs. Erica, and is clearly show'n to be a personage of Learning, Courage, Curiosity, Kindness, Wit and good Chear. Tho' she hath a lusty Appetite, 'tis not the Whole of her.
Bawdy she may be (by which liter'ry Term we Moderns mean to signity dirty in the extream, but of a classick Style, so 'tis properly acceptable to Persons of high Taste) but she hath also, in abundance, Passion for her Babe, her Good Friends of both Sexes, for the poetic tongue; she hath a prodigious amount of Thought on the Lot of the Fair Sex and of the Black Man and Woman, much Curiosity about the World, and a most commendable striving for Good.
She also hath this funny Way with Words that can drive the faithful Reader nuts in the extream, but 'tis a pleasant Prose when once the Reader hath accustom'd herself to't. Mrs. Erica hath employ'd a Style, neither 18th Century nor our 20th, that conveyeth the Spirit but doth not confuseth the Mind. Be you duly warn'd however, that it leaveth a peculiar staccato Sense in the Tongue that maketh the Nouns leap out with Abandon.
I'faith, her most excellent Pen and commendable Scholarship hath combined to produced a large Book in which the string of exciting and perilous Adventures, common to Heroes of the Period, is studded with such generous portions of Thought and Historic Details as to be of excellent fascination.
'Twill be a Surprize, no doubt, to the gentle Readers who know Mrs. Erica from the work she hath giv'n us before, such as Fear of Flying, that her Talent to paint a Scene is no less apparent on a Pyrate Ship than Airplane of Train.
But 'tis a true Heroine she hath made this Time, no mean and modern Creature whose search for Happiness is confin'd to her own Personage and certain of its Parts.
In the Age of Reason, i'faith, 'twas much more the Custom for Persons of Intellect to savor the World in all its Richness, taking both Good and Evil as they come, than to ply the Straits of Self Analysis. Mrs. Fanny, who useth her Reson as well as her Rump, is a most refreshing Delight. 'We have no choice but to be Americans now.' "Early on in the novel, then, we are being asked to view the Bellefleurs as allegorical figures dramatizing the abstract nature of the American temperament and destiny.
That destiny is made evident to us by means of a glut of incidents coverning 200 or more years of family history. By these incidents shall you know your destiny: four mass murders (five, if you count Gideon's murder-suicide at the end); a 10-month pregnancy resulting in a 72-hour labor and the birth of a monstrously large baby girl (Germaine) with the lower trunk of her twin brother protruding from her abdomen, which appendage is mercifully removed at the birth with a kitchen knife; numerous rapes, one of them of a preadolescent girl by the brother, Gideon and Ewan; the slaying of an infant by a gigantic, carnivorous bird called "the Noir Vulture"; the extermination of 37 gunnysacks of rats by the dwarf, Nightshade; the burning, shooting, hanging, mutilation of and frantic copulation with people of color; frequent and bizarre suicides; as well as hundreds of acts of plain old corruption, greed and unbridled sensuality that, in their details, are slightly more familiar to us.
It is certainly possible to read and enjoy a novel with characters and incidents like these: Faulkner, Garcia Marquez, Flannery O'Connor, and many other modern writers have asked us to face grotesque forms of violence, and by so doing have explored basic themes of character and destiny. But when there is no dramatic logic to those events and characters, when what happens is not inevitable but merely gratuitous, the book fails to move or inform us. Particularly disturbing in this case, however is not that Bellefleur fails to move or inform us, but that it seems to function as a means of expressing the author's fantasies, for that is what one is forced to conclude from the sheer gratuitousness of the violence and nightmare. Dreams and fantasies hold to different logic than that of narrative art, which is why people quickly grow bored when one tries to recount them; they have a use solely for the dreamer and the fantasizer.
Furthermore, Bellefleur is shockingly humorless, shocking because it is so long and because one cannot understand how an author could avoid creating comical consequences with characters so frequently and bigarrely in conflict, but then dreams and fantasies too are seldom comical.
Beyond this, the language Oates employs is revealing. Lengthy, serpentine, widly elaborate sentences, uselessly heaped-up modifiers, and phrases and clauses that simply repeat previous phrases and clauses create an inflated, baroque style that is undercut by dashes, exclamation points, italics, ellipses, bad grammar and downright inaccuracies, all combining to give the impression that what we are reading is an author's rough draft. This makes sense, however, if the author is merely fantasizing. After all, one does not revise dreams or fantasies, one simply experiences them.
Bellefleur is not bad because Oates' strategies fail, or because she writes sloppy prose, or because she is humorless; the book fails because she has misused the ancient and honorable occasion for storytelling. This is not a literary work, it is a public showing of a private act, and that is why we are embarrassed when we read it.