JOYCE CAROL OATES has now published 13 novels, 11 volumes of short stories, five of poems, three of essays and two of plays. Perhaps because she is so prolific in so many genres -- and perhaps because much of her work is so violent and obsessive -- readers and critics have tended to dismiss her as a phenomenon, a freak, not to take her quite seriously, as though one who writes so much and so passionately could not possibly write well. Her new novel, Angel of Light, set in Washington, while as compelling and suspensful as a thriller, demonstrates that Oates must be taken seriously indeed, for she attempts more than most of our writers dare -- in this case, to explore the profound issues of evil and innocence, betrayal and revenge and atonement, as they are manifest in contemporary American experience -- and to a remarkable extent she succeeds.
But Angel of Light demonstrates, perhaps better than any other Oates novel, what I think is the real reason for the critical unease surrounding her work: that she goes against the prevailing impulse in contemporary fiction toward the private and personal, a small-scale vision illustrated in the work of such a much-admired writer as Ann Beattie. As Contraries, Oates' thoughful and illuminating collection of essays, makes clear, Oates' models are the 19th-century masters like Dostoevski and Conrad; like them, she is what I would call a "social" novelist, interested in creating microcosms of the world that reflect the moral and philosophical questions encountered by man as he is in conflict with society, nature, God, history. What she admires in those novelists is passion, energy, the courage to take artistic and emotional risks; writing of Conrad's Nostromo, she is also speaking of herself: "The creation of small, tidy, 'perfect' works of art is by no means as tempting to the serious novelist as critics might like to think."
Angel of light is neither small nor tidy. It is a complex, dense, multi-layered work that unfolds with all the profound implications of Greek tragedy -- in fact, the story is a modern version of the fall of the House of Atreus. Yet Oates seems at last to have in control two of the weaknesses that have sometimes been the result of her considerable ambition and energy -- a feverish, overwritten prose style and a heavy-handed use of symbolism.
The novel is the story of the Halleck family of Washington, D.C., from 1947 to 1980, and the setting of Washington not only provides the perfect backdrop for the family's tragedy but also is part of the subject itself: the betrayals of the individual characters are also the betrayals of history.
Angel of Light centers on the death of Maurice Halleck, director of a fictional government agency called the Federal Commission for the Ministry of Justice. Halleck is rumored to have taken bribes to halt the prosecution of several businessmen accused of trying to prevent the election of Salvador Allende as president of Chile in 1970. Shortly thereafter, he apparently commits suicide by driving his car into a river in Virginia, leaving behind signed "confessions" of guilt. But his son and daughter, OWen and Kirsten, believe he was forced to confess and then murdered by their mother, the beautiful, half-Spanish Isabel de Benavente, and her lover, Nick Martens, Maurie's boyhood friend and second-in-command at the ministry. The novel begins with Kirsten's and Owen's pact to revenge their father's death. This exchange takes place:
"Not revenge. Not revenge but justice -- that's what we want.
"But, how will we know . . .?
"Who his murderers are, you mean? -- we know.
"No. If it's justice. Or only revenge."
Revenge or justice, a dilemma that goes back in the HAlleck family to their ancestor, John Brown, hanged at Harper's Ferry in 1859 for his part in the struggle against slavery. John Brown, Old Osawatomie, of whom Henry David Thoreau said, "'He is an Angel of Light.' And Thoreau said: I do not wish to kill or be killed but I can forsee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable.'" Brown whose battlecry was "No Quarter to our enemies!" and who was called, "a martyr, a madman, a murderer, a saint, a demon, a brave fearless heroic man, the Wrath of God, the Devil's tool."
So Oates links violent present to violent past to grapple with the novel's central question, one that was asked by Maurie Halleck when he was a boy: "To have the power to do good, how can you be good?" That is indeed a central question of history. Like their ancestor, the Halleck children seek to become God's earthly agents, dispensers of justice. Putting themselves above man, they -- particularly Owen, who becomes involved with a Symbionese Liberation Army-type revolutionary group -- come to care for no one, not even, eventually, for their father.
The plot of Angel of Light hinges on the unfolding of the Halleck children's pact to revenge their father's death, and it is with a horrified sense of impending doom -- one of the things Oates does best is to create and sustain that feeling -- that the reader is propelled forward, compelled to see it through from the very first page where Kirsten and Owen meet on "a morning of falling tumbling shadows, high above the river" surrounded by "the raucous and distracting noise of birds . . . in the leafless trees." That, it seems to me, is the first test of a novel: Does it hold our attention? And, to take it further, do we feel we have to read it? The answer is a decided yes.
It would be unfair to the reader to reveal exactly how Angel of Light ends. The Halleck children's quest for victims does result in cataclysm, and it is as profoundly horrifying a scene as Oates has ever written. Oates has been criticized for being too bleak, too pessimistic, but that is not an accurate observation. She has always been, fundamentally, a religious novelist, like Dostoevski a mystic, and nowhere is her belief that suffering is necessary to redemption more clear than in Angel of Light.
As a boy at boarding school, Maurie Halleck was consumed with admiration for Cardinal de Monnier and the desire to be, like the cardinal, a "prayerful witness," an imitation of Christ. He sees his death as a Christlike, sacrficial act -- "To humble oneself, to empty oneself -- even of goodness. Christ's final sacrifice: the sacrifice of divinity itself" -- and it is this death that, in a way he didn't anticipate, makes way fthe novel's apocalyptic, sacrificial climax.
this climax and the novel's denouement illustrate as question that Oates addresses in several of the essays in Contraries, particularly in a discussion of King Lear, in which she says that "it seems possible that one can redefine the concept of 'pessimism' itself and determine whether, in certain historically determined works of art, there is not a possibility of some transcendence, however forced by the conventional plot to be defeated." She has accomplished that in the novel's final chapter, in Nick Martens' contemplation of the natural world: "it is all a riddle, he is certain that it is all very significant, but its truth for him is merely truth -- the emptiness and beauty of a world uncontaminated by, and unguided by, human volition."
Part of the pleasure of this novel comes from seeing the way Oates reinforces meaning. It is difficult in a review of this length to explain how the novel's structure -- in sections that alternate past and present --for instance, has his doppelganger in the boarding school teacher Schweppenheiser, a flamboyant, eccentric little man who teaches the boys that "there was nothing divine about history, and particularly not American political history", who is also betrayed, who may or may not have committed suicide, who may or may not have been a spy. But in a curious way Schweppenheiser is also Nick Martens' doppelganger, for Maurie and Nick -- who once saved Maurie's life and, one way or another, broght about its end -- are two halves of one whole. So the theme of betrayal is echoed over and over -- the betrayal of Maurie Halleck and the betrayal of American ideals by those who were supposed to uphold them. The private ceremonial apocalypse in the novel is provoked by the larger disintegration of society.
And Oates has captured the society as it disintegrates. For one who has not lived in Washington for any length of time, she seems to know it well: its casual betrayals, the chatter of its cocktail parties, the women who live in the shadows of powerful men. Even the familiar types become individualized -- the political columnist, Preston Kroll, or the aging General Morton Kempe attending an inaugural ball, dressed in "a black evening jacket with satin lapels and an ordinary red and black plaid flannel shirt from Sears"; Kempe, like Lear's fool, telling disgusting and evil truth. "What is the body's reaction to the news that it is mortal? General Kempe asks with a grin, -- profound surprise."
A comment rendered in jest perhaps, but it has the shock of recognition, as so much in Angel of Light has the power to shock us into an awareness of our own mortality. Whatever one says about the intellectual content of the novel -- and it is there in plenty -- reading it is a deeply emotional experience. It is a measure of its author's passion that we are so completely enveloped that its world becomes our own. As Oates writes of Dostoevski in Contraries, "One has a vivid sence of [him] as a participant in his own tragic fiction," and it is that sense of Oates, so difficult to articulate, that makes us participate in Angel of Light. It is an experience far too rare in fiction; like life, it is full of pain and suffering and a kind of tragic joy that comes of knowledge, but one wouldn't want to miss it.