LIKE A DYBBUK, possessing the corporeal form and speaking in the voice of its hapless host -- but, ah, in what altered tones! -- the unquiet spirit of the famed Mrs. Grundy has taken hold of and transformed one of America's best-selling novelists, no less a figure than the acclaimed and industrious Joyce Carol Oates. This is not the first novel to issue as a spirit oracle from the tranced lips of this author. Bellefleur of two summers ago represented a similar, though a less droll effort to produce a novel by trance mediumship. That novel failed in proportion as one could detect the guiding, beguiling hand of the author directing her story to ordinary novelistic ends and shaping a prose not notably more overinflated or out-of-tune than that produced by other practitioners of the Gothic Genteel; Mary Stewart, for instance.
In A Bloodsmoor Romance , however, Oates writes with a headlong, undauntable awfulness that has no parallel in modern letters, even in the work of John Gardner (whose own exercise in counterfeit kitsch, October Light , took place within a framing narrative and was distanced by another typeface, as if to say, "Don't blame me ."). Oates' self-abasing prose is compounded of all the mannerisms, moues, and tics we love to hate in the purplest of Victorian lady novelists. Here, for instance, is her rendering of Fairbanks House: "A handsome mansard-roofed stone mansion, set atop a majestic knoll overlooking the Hudson River -- that grandiose and invincible monarch of rivers -- and surrounded by great copper beeches of a Palladian hauteur."
There is enough padding of that sort to stuff a whole arkload of horsehair sofas -- but to what purpose, a Serious Reader may ask, are those sofas being stuffed? To begin with, most of Oates' pomposities lead with satisfying inevitability toward a pratfall of noble dimensions. Her characters will be decked out in yards and yards of lacey rhetoric, given a tea service to carry, led to the head of a grant staircase, and then given a boot in the bustle. Sometimes the humor is as broad as a Paul Bunyan tall tale, as when it is discovered at the autopsy of Grandmother Kiddemaster, that this delicate Christian gentlewoman, after a lifetime of light eating and tight lacing, "possessed very few inner organs, and those of a miniature, or atrophied nature . The torso, stomach, abdominal, and genital regions were largely hollow; and in these cavities, amidst the pools of pale pink watery blood, were some four or five organs of a size and quality that even the mortician, with his expert eye, experienced some difficulty in identifying . . . . Having been the enviable possessor, throughout her life, of a skeleton of the most refined delicacy, Mrs. Kiddemaster was found to weigh after her death only forty-three pounds : which figure, the mortician thought most extraordinary, a tribute as much to the lady's ascetic Christian practices of diet, as to her God-given anatomy."
The same Mrs. Kiddemaster produced, in the last days of her life, an antimacassar "somewhat above the coventional in length, being 1,358 yards, or some three-quarters of a mile. . . ."
Other times the humor of the book resides in the wild disparity between the Grundy-voice's prissy decorums and the ribald content of the story she is obliged to tell. And sometimes a joke just dies on the vine. But never mind, there are seven main characters -- the five Zinn sisters and their parents -- each with her or his own plot-vector, so the impatient reader has the assurance that after only a few more pages of sensible, dull Samantha, it will be possible to relish the further trials of Octavia, a virtu ous ninny of a heroine in the mold of Thackeray's Amelia Sedley (or de Sade's Justine), whom Oates subjects to the drollest of torments, all the while, in her Grundy-voice, hymning the pleasures of conjugal duty:
"Loving, unquestioning obedience! Dependence! Cheerful resignation! What can be sweeter? To submit oneself wholly and contentedly into the hand of another; to surrender all appetite for the grossness of Self; to cease taking thought about oneself at all, and rest in safe harbor, at last, content to know that in great things and small we shall be guided and cherished, guarded and helped -- ah, how delicious! how precious!"
The sum of all these jokes, however, amounts to little more than this: that the 19th century was unfair to women; that Mrs. Grundy was a fool and a hypocrite; that men are vile. The impact of even these lessons is not developed progressively, and the social commentary rarely rises above the level of satire of a Virginia Slims advertisement. Surely it has become common knowledge that Victorian women dressed uncomfortably, were kept in ignorance of sex, and treated as chattels. Both Dickens and Thackeray offer more vivid indictments of those women who, following the bidding of Mrs. Grundy, acquiesced in their own victimization for motives of greed and gluttony. (The latter is Oates' special horror; she is the laureate of anorexia.) As to the vileness of men, that is simply one of the enabling premises of the Feminist Novel, like spaceships in science fiction. Were Oates' men other than creatures of straw, they would not catch fire so easily or blaze so finely. The important thing in a burlesque is to have fun, and Oates does.
Serious Readers casting about for a redeeming esthetic purpose will be able to sieve from the plot's meandering stream some goodsized nuggets of self-reflective irony, particularly in those chapters devoted to the career of Deirdre Zinn as a spirit medium and a companion of (the historical) Madame Blavatsky. The voices besetting Deirdre are surely cousins of the voices that dictated this novel to its amanuensis. Oates' touch is light in drawing such parallels. Indeed, the aforementioned 1,358-yard-long antimacassar is an apter and droller textual metonymy for th. 600 plus pages of A Bloodsmoor Romance .
The book is a fair botch from a production point of view. Writers who produce novels from the ether ought to be given the benefit of attentive copyediting, but A Bloodsmoor Romance is rife with solecisms that are probably not ascribable to the Grundy-voice (a constant use of the non-word "thusly"), verbal anachronisms ("mortician" in the quite above and "robot" are both coinages of the 1920s), and of the kind of blind carelessness that comes of writing on automatic pilot (as when New Year's Eve toasts are drunk on "January 31").
But all that is niggling, and for a final estimate of the book's appeal, I can do no better than to quote Mrs. Grundy in one of her more candid and prescient moments: ". . .I am heartsick, at the distinct possibility, that, amidst my readership, there may well be, here and there, those persons of the masculine gender, who, lacking an intrinsic purity of character, may, by laborious effort, and much unseemly exercise of the lower ranges of the imagination, summon forth a prurient gratification , from these hapless pages!"
The lady's fears were, I blush to confess, altogether justified. CAPTION: Picture, Joyce Carol Oates, Copyright (c) by Jerry Bauer