A few years ago I saw a review of a novel by Joyce Carol Oates -- one of her "genre" novels, A Bloodsmoor Romance, I think -- headlined "Stop Her Before She Writes Again!" That kind of flippant dismissal -- could it be envy? -- seems to have become a common, even fashionable, response to this writer who regularly produces a novel a year, not to mention short stories, poems and essays. The reasoning is, I believe, that Oates is too prolific to be taken seriously, that her output represents a kind of autohence, careless.
It's a logic I don't buy. Oates is never careless, but she is entranced and obsessive and that is precisely the source of her power. Given the volume of her production, it isn't surprising that the results are sometimes uneven, but I've always admired her passion, her energy, her very personal vision, and, perhaps above all, her willingness to try for so much, to take great risks, even when the risk involves returning to territory she knows, and renders, so well, as she does in her 17th work of fiction, Marya: A Life.
This territory is the consciousness of a particular type of woman: of superior intelligence, attractive, neurotic, who by will and brains has risen out of a brutal and impoverished childhood to success in the academic or professional world but who continues to be haunted by her dark past, her own dark soul. But though Marya Knauer is a type familiar in Oates' fiction, she is very much an individual, delineated with such care and skill and empathy that the reader is drawn irresistibly into her life, almost despite himself.
When we first meet Marya she is 8 years old and being awakened in the middle of the night by her slatternly, drunken mother o go on a mysterious trip, a trip to identify the body of Marya's father, Joe, who has been beaten to death in a local tavern, probably as a result of his activities as a union man. It is a mining community called Shaheen Falls somewhere in the Northeast, perhaps Pennsylvania, where violence and poverty are taken for granted, a landscape as brooding and full of self-hatred as the people, like Vera Sanjek Knauer, Marya's mother, who inhabit it.
Not long after her husband's death, Vera simply disappears, abandoning her three children in their ramshackle house, where they are not discovered for days, having been too frightened and confused to seek help. But though Marya and her brothers are raised by their slightly better-off, well-meaning aunt and uncle, those early years of abuse and neglect remain Marya's legacy. Throughout her life, though she has learned a mental trick common to abused children ("Marya clapped her hands over her eyes and disappeared: she couldn't see anybody then and they couldn't ee her. She just disappeared -- the way dreams do when a light is switched on."), she will be haunted by certain memories: of someone in a store saying of her in disgust,"Isn't she a little savage, just look at her, those eyes . . . "; of her mother's drunken, angry whisper, "You do love me -- you're just the same as me -- I know you!"
There is another lesson that Marya learns well: "Don't you start crying," Marya's mother warned her. "Once you get started you won't be able to stop." And she never does, not even when her older cousin Lee subjects her to his sexual fumblings in the back seat of an abandoned car ("Hold still. Don't move. Don't tell. As if Marya Knauer required such warnings.") or when she is savagely attacked at a going-away party the night before she goes to college. It is no surprise that Marya is suspicious, ambitious, manipulative, or that she spends much of her life looking for love in complicated, often masochistic relationships -- with a teacher in Shaheen Falls who recognizes her abilities, with a young priest dying of cancer, with a beautiful actress and fellow student at the state university where she becomes a scholarship student, with an egocentric medievalist at a prestigious university whose research assistant she becomes, and finally with the editor of an important journal to which she contributes articles after she becomes a well-known cultural and literary critic in her mid-thirties.
If all of this sounds too dreary, too pat, too much like a case history, I can only say that Marya Knauer becomes entirely real, entirely human, by turns maddening, pitiable and even heroic. Nor does Oates leave us without hope in the end that Marya may be able to come to terms with her past after all.
No one knows the darkness of our age, of our own natures, the prison of our narcissism, better that Joyce Carol Oates. The dismissal of her work may in part be due to the fact that Oates makes us uncomfortable; she shows us what we don't want to see -- ourselves -- even in a life so individual as Marya Knauer's. It's something we can't afford to ignore.