I LOCK MY DOOR UPON MYSELF
By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco. 98 pp. $15.95
OF AMERICAN writers generally judged to be of the first rank, Joyce Carol Oates has surely been the most prolific. There are other hard-working writers who produce novels at similarly regular intervals -- John Updike, Anne Tyler -- but their work seems more piecemeal, somehow. With Oates there is a continuous welling up and spilling forth, as though, as nearly as the exigencies of her life permit, we had been made privy to an entire lifetime's stream of consciousness. It seems inevitable, in hindsight, that she would not be able to preserve her incognito as Rosamond Smith when she began to publish mysteries under that pseudonym: Her voiceprint and modus operandi are simply too distinctively her own.
For instance, this breathless, overheated disheveled sidewinder of a paragraph (the opening only) from the latest slice of the Oatesian cosmos, I Lock My Door Upon Myself:
"Calla took delight in observing the stranger, the black man, from her strategic position; bracing herself on the windowsill, her muscles small but hard, strong, bearing her up. In giving birth, she had three times bled, and bled, and bled, until that final time she had believed they meant to allow her to bleed to death once the baby was wrenched from her, their baby, and not hers, yet she'd held stubbornly on to the thin stream of life as if with her very fingers, yes she'd held on tight, tight and stubborn, she'd lived and now months later she'd recovered completely from the angush and ignominy, the unspeakable insult of it, now she was restored to herself again, her body lank yet hard with muscle, ungiving. . . ."
The paragraph veers off on three more distinct tangents, including an "hours later" reaction shot of Calla's mother-in-law and a concluding italicized statement, which recurs as Calla's motto throughout the book: I do what I do, what I do is what I wanted to have done. It's hard not to hear echoes of Faulkner in such passages, and in its repetitions, doublings back and effortful simplicities, there is also a trace of the folkloric disingenuousness of Gertrude Stein's Melanctha.
Oates -- the author of stories (re)titled "The Metamorphosis," "The Turn of the Screw" and "The Dead" -- has never been shy about incurring or acknowledging literary debts. Indeed, she rather glories in her belatedness, since it provides the occasions for virtuoso display. Having just published a novel, Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart, that deals with a tragic interracial romance in her primary novelistic mode of amply observed and annotated naturalism, she now whips off a kind of Fantasia on a Theme by Oates that transposes the larger work into rhapsodic form, moving the story back in time half a century, changing its setting from documentary urban to idyllic rural, and simplifying the figures of the doomed lovers to a bare mimetic minimum. AS TO THE plot, almost the whole of it is "given away" in the first 30 lines of text, which pictures a white woman sitting in a rowboat "in a posture of extreme attentiveness" as a black man rows steadily downstream towards a 60-foot waterfall. The novel then proceeds to explain this love-suicide, as seen from the woman's perspective: a loveless country childhood that instills a single italicized lesson: My self is all to me. I don't have any need of you; a loveless marriage (How I loathe you, how I wish you were dead dead dead); conjugal rapes with three offspring resulting; and finally the encounter with Tyrell Thompson, water dowser with a highly responsive willow wand (" 'Oh, it's alive like a snake!' she cried"). There are 15 pages of mad love, followed by their highly decorative suicide for seven pages, and a surprise bonus of 15 pages, which it would be sinful to reveal as it constitutes the only surprise in the book.
A slim volume, surely, but no slimmer than such classic novellas as Edith Wharton's False Dawn or Glenway Wescott's The Pilgrim Hawk. Readers who fancy the painting reproduced on the cover, showing a rustic pre-Raphaelite maiden gazing soulfully past a dessicated tiger lily will probably also take Oates's tale more at face value than did I. I admired her virtuosity but never was swept off my mental feet. The painting by the Belgian artist Fernand Khnoff was supposedly the springboard of Oates's tale, though there are probably a dozen other works by the author which it might as aptly illustrate. Calla is the quintessential Oatesian heroine: at once self-absorbed and aflame with desire, the perpetual focus of the author's bemused admiration:
"How strange she was. How . . . strange.
"A beautiful young woman so innocent of vanity (or was it self-respect) she scarcely cared how she dressed, even on Sundays; even when company came; like a female derelict sometimes forgetting to wash her hair from one week to the next so that its wavy-red luster turned opaque and there lifted from her a faint warm rank animal smell . . ."
The italicized poser appended to the end of that paragraph is And why was she so loath to look in a mirror? Could it be for fear of being knocked down by her own ineffable loveliness? That seems to be one of the dangers of the female imagination in its most heightened gothic mode, and it is a danger Oates faces here with reckless courage, rowing the little boat of her novella straight to the edge of the waterfall and over with a splash.
Thomas M. Disch's new novel, "The M.D.: a Horror Story," is forthcoming.