By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco. 434 pp. $25.95
The event horizon in literary stardom is littered with artificial light, but in 1963, with the publication of By The North Gate, an authentic star was born. That stellar energy was Joyce Carol Oates, and, because in the last 40 years her prodigious literary output rivals little else on Planet America, her phenomenon resembles less a single source of information than the busy, contradictory, ambient noise of cosmic radiation in the Universe.
She's here, she's there, she's everywhere -- holding down her teaching chair at Princeton, dashing off impassioned Letters to assembled Editors, compiling instructive essays for periodicals as varied as the New York Review of Books and Road & Track, averaging 2.5 published volumes a year between herself and Rosamond Smith, her nom de plume.
Each October, according to Greg Johnson, her biographer, Oates anticipates the Nobel call from Stockholm -- and why not? With the death of Sontag, only Oates and Didion can claim title to First Lady of American Belles Letters. Like Didion, Oates writes as if the act of writing is life-saving. But, unlike Didion, she never seems to find redemption in the act. Brutal murder, madness, beatings, rape, class jealousies -- these are the themes of her fiction, peopled by a cast of physically and emotionally undernourished heroines, traumatized by a scrum of over-sexed and over-powering males.
Anticipating another Oates Novel, then, given these basic ingredients, is like watching the Iron Chef: What she'll race to serve up next is anybody's guess. Gothics, grotesqueries, tales-told-in-real-time -- she's tried them all. Experimentation -- almost to the point of sacrificing her own readers -- is the candle Oates burns at both ends. Which means -- either because she's overconfident or sloppy -- that sometimes what she hands you on a plate is just too squiggly to swallow.
In Missing Mom, Oates's latest dish, the first 50 pages are spiked with the kind of spice we expect from the author of them, Wonderland and We Were the Mulvaneys. The "Mom" of the title is Gwen Eaton, one of the most memorable characters Oates has created to date: a widow in her late fifties, given to baking fragrant breads and ministering to strays, flawed but lovably fragile, with the irresistible and, one suspects, justifiably deserved nickname of "Feather."
At the book's beginning, it is Mother's Day, and Gwen is fussing through last-minute adjustments before her guests arrive for a celebratory meal. Among them are her two daughters, Nicole and Clare. Clare, the older, is married, with two kids. Nicole ("Nikki") is single but dating an older married man. She's 32, although the way Oates writes her, she sometimes sounds no older than 12. Which is unfortunate, because she is our first-person narrator. She arrives in Gwen's kitchen:
" 'Ohhh Nikki! What have you done with your hair!' First thing Mom said to me. Before I was through the doorway and into the kitchen. Before she hugged me stepping back with this startled look in her face. I would remember the way Mom's voice lifted on hair like the cry of a bird shot in mid-flight." Classic Oates -- not only because of the macabre juxtaposing of images, but because 50 pages later "Mom," herself, is dead. Murdered -- leaving us with only Nikki to tell the family history. And even though Nikki is supposed to be a feature writer at the local paper, she's no dab hand at narrative. All we get are diary entries of the bloggy sort. Whereas Gwen was a character anyone could love, Nikki is self-absorbed, insecure about her job, her lover, wardrobe, diet, hair, appearance:
"My jeans were faded, just snug enough to show my derriere to advantage. I was skinnier than Wally Szalla 'preferred' me but I was making an effort to eat more regularly, fret less and not to forget: lipstick!" What Oates has written here is really a teen novel.
Even if we are to believe Nikki has never dipped into the reservoir of feminist literature, surely Oates has. Oates knows her Wharton, James and Austen; but Nikki is more Olsen twin than Bennet sister. Our previous heroines were women struggling to lay claim to identity in a society bound to render them invisible. Oates's heroine is rendering herself invisible via her insecurities.
There may be great literature waiting to be written about these neurotic girls who starve themselves of love and calories, and I suspect no one could tell that story with more wit than Oates herself. But she's chosen a shrill voice for it here. Halfway through the book comes one of Nikki's entries titled, "blaming mom": "why Mom? why Mom? . . . you are to blame for what happened! what happened to you! what happened to us! you are to blame! you are to blame! you! you! no one else! Mom, why? Mom, why? why? why Mom? why Mom? WHY MOM? WHY MOM? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY?"
This is followed by 109 more WHY?s in capital letters.
Having nothing more interesting to think about on that page, I counted them. And you know what? Sometimes less is more. Now how do we ask for that doggy bag in Swedish? *
Marianne Wiggins's most recent novel, "Evidence of Things Unseen," was nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.