OF ALL the idiocies on the contemporary American literary scene, surely none is more idiotic than the persistent rumor that the next American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature will be Joyce Carol Oates. The notion is put forth in all seriousness, and munched over at cocktail parties with as much solemnity as is devoted to the provenance of wines or the latest game of publishing musical chairs. Among the elite, gossip has it that if Norman Mailer doesn't get the prize -- the mere thought of such a possibility being quite enough to induce cataleptic seizure -- then surely Joyce Carol Oates is next in line when the Swedish Academy, in all its wisdom, chooses once again to honor literary America.
Where on earth do such rumors start? In the faculty club at Rutgers? The graduate-school cafeteria at CCNY? Do people actually believe this? If they do, is it legitimate to call them serious people?
To be sure, were writers to be recognized solely for their productivity, then certainly Oates would get all the prizes; they'd have to invent new ones just for her. Every other week, it seems, the door to her aerie opens and a new book gusts forth. Writers, reviewers and readers gaze at her in awe; she is, in the words they occasionally apply reverently to her, a "writing machine." It seems not to have occurred to anyone that writing is like anything else: if it is done too hastily and too profusely, it almost inevitably is done badly.
In the pungent words of the late Truman Capote, this isn't writing, it's typing. There could not be a more paradigmatic example of Oates' craft than Solstice, a hysterical little novel -- at least, by comparison with most of her recent effusions, it has the virtue of relative brevity -- that reveals itself, beneath all the noise it makes, to hav nothing at all to say. It wails, it weeps, it groans, it gasps:
"She couldn't see how she was to blame but he blamed her. But she was to blame. He knew. He guessed. The stratagem was hers, the trick. To get pregnant, to make a change in their lives, to force the issue. I will force the issue, she had thought, manic with excitement. Then, afterward, the guilt -- the luxury of guilt -- sucking and gnawing on guilt -- Monica weeping hysterically in Harold's arms because they were murderers because they were trapped together in an act of supreme significance because it was all a ruse and Monica was playacting Monica hadn't loved him from the start Monica hadn't been capable of love but had quite liked being loved."
ENOUGH? No, there's more. The typewriter is on automatic pilot, spinning giddily out of control: "She was shamefaced, crying, laughing in surprised hiccuping gulps, she hadn't known until this moment, Sheila staring at her, Sheila leaning forward staring at her, what a liar she was . . . She wept, hugging herself. Her breasts were aching. Her belly, her loins." And so it goes: nearly 250 pages of overwrought, undisciplined prose more suited to the breathy encounters of a Harlequin romance than to the work of an author of high literary reputation. In the background you can hear the typewriter clacking away, like a wire-service ticker in an old-fashioned newsroom, spewing forth more words than it, or the reader, can digest.
All of this hyperactivity has to do with a youngish woman, the aforementioned Monica, who comes to teach at a boy's preparatory school in rural Pennsylvania following the unsuccessful conclusion of her marriage. There she meets and becomes fast friends with the aforementioned Sheila, an older woman, the widow of a well-known artist and herself a painter of considerable talent. We are to believe that they are pearls cast among swine; all about them are the randy gentleman farmers of Bucks County, the self-satisfied panjandrums of the Glenkill Academy for Boys and the bubbleheaded wives of both. But if these be pearls, I cast my lot with the swine.
Though Oates obviously means us to see them otherwise, neither party to this odd couple ever emerges beyond her faintest outline. Monica, who is clearly intended to be sympathetic, is merely whiny and self-pitying; Sheila, who is granted the vast license of artistic temperament, is merely abrupt and self-absorbed. There's no real characterization here because Oates is in too much of a hurry and too much involved, perhaps, in the sheer emotion of a situation that, no matter how deeply she may feel it herself, she utterly fails to convey to the reader. If we don't care about the characters because there's nothing there to care about, how on earth can we be expected to care about what happens to them?
What happens, furthermore, is not much. There's a lot of dithering, as in the passage quoted above, about Monica's abortion and her failed marriage; there's an extended episode of slumming in which the two women disguise themselves as divorcees named Sherrill Ann and Mary Beth and ply the local roadhouses in search of male company; there's a bit of suspense, if you're easy to please, involving a mysterious man who has been "making inquiries" about Monica; and there's plenty of fussing about whether Sheila will actually pull together the show she's been working on forever and then show up for its opening at a gallery in New York. There's all this business going on, but there's no sense or purpose to it, no evidence that it is anything more than mere stuffing for another turkey.
Judging from some rather heavyhanded hints that are laid in the reader's path, Solstice is meant to be a novel about the difficulties and rewards of friendship, the illusion we create for ourselves that we are in control of our lives, and the moments in life -- solstices, if you will -- when we pass through crisis. Those are the novl's themes; they stick out like sore thumbs, begging for our attention, but they are only casually connected with Oates' characters and themes.
Nothing in Solstice meshes or even connects; it's characteristic of the book's disorganization and carelessness that it is littered with parenthetical asides, some of them running to a paragraph or more, that seem to have been injected as hasty afterthoughts by a writer too hurried to pause and weave things together. Solstice has nothing to recommend it except thin characters, transparent themes and hyperventilated prose; surely readers, not to mention prize-givers, want more from fiction than that. CAPTION: Picture, Joyce Carol Oates. Copyright (c) Jill Krementz