Monday, November 3, 2008

Early Vintage Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is, in my view, one of the finest writers of modern literature. With her art Oates has delved masterfully into the experience of Modern America, not shying away from its more dark, cruel, even violent dimensions. She has been criticized for the violence in her writings; I have even read criticism which claimed that the violence of her stories makes for an ultimately distorted picture of America. I disagree. One of the geniuses of Oates is her ability to place the reader inside a character, so that as we read we are seeing life from the perspective of the protagonist, however tormented he or she may be. And so we are caught up in the manifold facets of modern life in a fragmented world. This involves misery, violence, redemption, love, and contentment, not necessarily in this order. In other words, it is indeed realistic.

Odd as it might seem to make this claim, at times Oates reminds me of Fyodor Dostoevsky. His setting was nineteenth century Russia, much different from mid to late 20th century America, yet he, likewise, artfully takes the reader into the mind of the protagonist, as troubled, and violent, as that journey can prove. I can’t recall where he said this, but Dostoevsky once wrote, “They call me a psychologist. That is not true. I’m only a realist in the higher sense. That is, I portray all the depths of the human soul.” Thus he “portrays” the odyssey of a character, not as a one or two dimensional stick figure, but as the struggle of a real life, with all its dimensions. I think that what Dostoevsky says here of himself can also be said of Joyce Carol Oates.

In her first novel, With Shuddering Fall, Oates describes the doomed relationship between Karen and Shar, two troubled people, drawn to each other in a swirl of love and violence. If my comparison between Oates and Dostoevsky in the previous paragraph seems a bit unusual to some, my next comparison may seem even more out of place. I want to propose it nonetheless. Oates likely had no such thing in mind; I am just making an observation about what I am reminded of when I read this novel. Namely, With Shuddering Fall reminds me in some ways of The Idiot. Karen, the protagonist, is like Prince Myshkin. Both are physically weak, spiritually sensitive people, who get drawn into and caught up in the violence of what seems to be love in their lives. Myshkin does not merely witness the violence of Rogozhin, but suffers greatly on account of it. Likewise, the violent storm of Shar’s life ruins Karen. She ends up going mad, having to stay for a time in a hospital for the insane, just as Myshkin ends up with nothing left to give to others, and goes mad.

From one perspective both of these may seem like tragedies. In the case of The Idiot, however, I think we have a beautiful picture of the self sacrifice of a Christ figure. And in the case of With Shuddering Fall, Karen finally goes back home, finding a peace and contentment in the embrace of the communion of the Church. It is a beautiful, almost musical, resolution to the theme of communion introduced elsewhere in the story. For Karen has been seeking, all along, a sense of communion, and meaning, in her life. And ultimately, the contrast is drawn between the communion she finds in the world, a communion of violence and death, and the communion to which she comes back home.

The descriptive final chapter, along with all that leads up to it, is the reason that With Shuddering Fall is my fiction recommendation of the week. Please be aware, though, that there is language, and certain violent scenes, which the young should avoid, and which others may want to avoid as well.

What Karen experiences in the Holy Mass, after she is released from the insane asylum and moves back home, is described so beautifully and sensitively by Oates, that I simply must share it. In, through, and despite all of the irreverence and distractions going on in the church, note how the whole interplay of the human and the divine affects Karen, and how reconciliation and communion is received and perceived. Note the interplay of what is happening at the altar with her wandering thoughts; Karen’s experience is so imperfect, so real, and ultimately beautiful.

We should note also that what Oates portrays liturgically is the traditional Mass, which has a transcendent quality that is almost completely lost to the modern Church. The novel was published in, if I recall, 1964, so at the time she did not even know the modern horrors in which the Novus Ordo often manifests the Church’s liturgy. Therefore she evidently was not trying to make some sort of ecclesial-political statement, but merely describing the liturgy as she knew it.

Perhaps most of us do not appreciate what is going on in church the way Karen does because we have not come out of the tragic and scandalous circumstances she has. Yet I think that Karen’s violent odyssey is in some way iconic of the rebelliousness of which we are all guilty. And so her return to sanity and communion also has something to say to every child of the Church. Note also how the communion Karen experiences in the liturgy, even though she does not go to Communion yet, since she has not yet been to Confession, is mirrored afterward in her father’s words of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Joyce Carol Oates has kindly granted me permission to post the concluding portion of the novel here, and I thank her very much for this. All of what follows this sentence is from With Shuddering Fall, namely, from chapter 23:

Sunday morning in church: Karen knelt on the hard kneeling bench, hands clasped up before her mouth, eyes lowered. When the Herzes had come into church-some of Karen’s brothers and sisters had come to late Mass just to be with them-Karen had felt eyes turning discreetly upon them as they marched up the aisle to the Herz pew. There were gangling men and red-faced, smiling women, a dozen children of all sizes, Celine walked proudly with Albert (who was not catholic but hinted at becoming one), old Herz himself with a new winter overcoat on top of which his thin neck and head were balanced precariously, turning to nod at acquaintances. Most interesting of all this clan was Karen, who walked beside her father without looking at either side. She wore her black coat with the high, proud black fur, and the same black hat she had worn for several years-a familiar sight that disappointed many women who watched. Once seated, taking up a whole pew, they scrambled to kneel with a flurry of rosaries and prayer books and children’s mittens. One of the smallest boys stood immediately on the kneeling bench and had to be forced to sit down. There was a sudden scuffle; a furious look; children were urged to change places and adults or older children placed between them. Then they fell to prayer.

Because it was nearing Christmas there were greens at the front of the church, decorating the little side altars. The scent of fir branches and the heavy, luxurious odor of incense mixed, a pleasant smell, faintly hypnotic. The church was a little cold. Somewhere a baby began to gasp, preparing to cry. People hurried in out of the snow, stamping their feet. A murmur of voices came from the vestibule. Children sniffed hard; people coughed expectantly. The priest-an old man with shocked white hair-appeared at the side entrance to the altar, craning his head around to look for something. He made a signal: a boy on the other side of the church got up, scrambled out of the pew, genuflected, and with hands tightly clasped and eyes lowered, hurried up to the altar. Karen remembered when her brothers had helped serve Mass. It seemed a long time ago. She remembered the pained apprehension with which she had stared at them, as if by the strength of her hope alone they could be protected from error…How strange it was, Karen thought, that her brother Ed had once been before the congregation, when now he sat so comfortably back in the pew, his heavy fingers holding a prayer book at which he would not glance-a grown man, a man with children, to whom the transformation from a white-surpliced altar boy to a grumbling, big-stomached farmer was no surprise. Beside Karen her father sat, fumbling with a rosary. The black beads were worn smooth and looked like flat, oval seeds. His nose had started to run because of the sharp cold and he wiped it, sometimes with a crumpled handkerchief, sometimes with the back of his hand. Clearing his throat, he made the loud, important, gargling sound Karen had heard other old men make in church.

Upstairs in the choir loft the organ suffered a fast, tentative run. Notes fled past one another up the scale and disappeared. There was a scuffling sound of people arranging themselves, then silence. Karen sat back and with her empty hands folded on her lap watched the backs of heads before her, a small sea of nodding, alert heads, bescarfed and behatted and bare, all the way up to the white gleaming altar banked by fir branches. The church began to fill.

From above, music. From behind, the sudden scrambling to feet that meant the beginning of Mass. The priest and the altar boys walked up the aisle, blessing the people. They stood, and as the priest passed, solemnly murmuring, his white hair vivid as if with rage, they crossed themselves and genuflected with humility. As if from heaven, the straining voices of the choir penetrated the rich, chilly air, and beneath them the old organ trembled with a dignity so profound it threatened to lose control of itself. Somewhere downstairs, a lone elderly woman began to sing along with the choir in a high, sharp, discordant voice, as if she were with malice parodying the music. As the priest and the boys passed to the front of the church there were final coughs, a hurrying to seats. Everyone was standing.

Karen was submerged in the thin splendor of the ceremony as if in a dream. The priest sang the Mass, though he had nearly no voice, and the sound of the persistent, cracked Latin somehow reassured Karen. Now I am home, she thought. Now I recognize what I have come back to.

The church grew steadily warmer. As the altar light shone richly upon the priest’s vestments the purple turned lighter, deeper, commanding all eyes to it. Karen stared at the priest’s back as he bowed his head. Purple: the color of penance and expiation. Humility before oncoming mysteries. There was no fear there, nor was there hesitation or doubt: the priest’s words, as smooth as an eye in a socket, would never stop. The Latin pressed through the old man’s wavering voice, as if it were an unleashing of sound stored up for centuries. Before its brittle splendor everyone must bow, kneel, forget himself. Impossible to remember an individual past when the Mass, with a blast of music and a whining, wrestling interplay of voices and the merciless Latin itself, cut through all pasts, erased all pasts. Karen awaited, trembling, the moment at which her individuality would die. She saw the long tortuous nights and the days filled with self-pity and guilt sucked away, absolved of their reality-just as Ed was absolved of his childhood and need no longer think of it. The voices swelled with grandeur and love and pride in themselves. The organ, operated by an old woman, pedaled skimpily after them. Karen touched her father’s sleeve and he turned to glance at her, surprised. She saw that his face was sallow and flecked with small black dots of dirt, but that streaks of tan still remained from the summer and from his past. His eyes were shrewd and calculating and oddly kind, for they smiled at her first, and then his lips allowed themselves to smile. Then he looked away and rubbed the beads of his rosary between his fingers. That rosary is as old as he is, Karen thought clearly.

The congregation limped through prayers, murmuring the unfamiliar Latin in waves of clarity and incoherence, like breathing. The priest’s voice rose sharper, signaling his anger. On Karen’s left her pregnant sister-in-law, squinting in her prayer book, tried to follow the Mass with moving lips, sometimes running her forefinger slowly under the lines. She held struggling secretly on her lap her youngest boy, who reached up to the shadowy ceiling of the old church with clenched white fists. Beyond her the other relatives knelt, heads turned this way and that, eyes scanning the pews before them or fixed stonily on the priest and his hands. Karen saw them with a peculiar flash of warmth. Their feelings toward her had at first puzzled Karen, but now she saw-suddenly-that their polite, easy discretion, their hints of reproach, expressed only through looks or finger tapping or impatient scoldings of nearby innocent children, simply disguised their love for her. That was it: they felt love for her. Not for Karen herself, she knew, for they had never had much patience with Herz’s youngest, spoiled daughter, but for the Karen who had suffered to prove to them the justice of their universe. They could not but love her, who had strengthened their faith in the vague beliefs they mouthed and heard mouthed to them in the ceremony of the Mass: the sacrifice of the Mass was a distant, calculated ritual, and the perfunctory humility of the priest was for their eyes alone, but Karen’s sin and penance and expiation had been real enough, and showed, probably in her eyes or somewhere in her face, the crushing justice of a moral universe. For this they loved her, though their love was nothing personal; for this her father would begin-if he had not begun already-to cherish her as before. Karen saw it with excitement. That was true! That was true! She understood them, she was with them and at the same time a little apart from them, and had not lost herself in the experience. About her the music kept on in its appointed path, straining upward. The priest cried, Kyrie eleison!

Karen put her hands to her face and begged silently for mercy. She knew she was in danger of losing control of herself, of crying-for did not glimpses of Shar’s face flick on and off in the corners of her mind?-did not glimpses of her father’s bloody face, jaws grinding with delicious hatred, rush at her, call her to herself? “What have they done to me!” she thought. But then, as the congregation kneeled and was swept along to new prayers, Karen knelt slowly with them and forced her mind to stay clear. She would not lose control of herself. Wasn’t her family, and perhaps even a sick, perverse part of herself, waiting for this?

She stared at the short old priest and thought, as if she were talking to him, whispering in his ear: “I will not give in to it. I know who I am. I have always known who I am.” As if she were already at confession, already whispering to the strange old man-she had discovered that she hardly remembered him, though he had been in the parish for years-she tensed herself, felt her lips curl upward in the usual disdain and half-mockery with which she listened to her own confessions. “You must remember me, Father. Karen Herz. The youngest girl. I have done enough to end my life at eighteen, or spend the rest of it thinking; nothing in the future will mean as much to me as what is behind. Or I can go on with what they have taught me-they have initiated me into the communion of killers, murderers, who are staring right now at your back.” Here she hesitated; was there not betrayal here? Did the skill of murder have to be learned?

“I can continue with it, with what I have become,” she thought, staring at the old man angrily, “and begin this afternoon, when the dishes are cleared away, with the closest man-that will be Albert. I can wear twenty pounds off him and make his eyes swim behind his glasses and I can make him and Celine tear each other apart if I want. And after Albert, one of the hired men. There are men enough for me to feed on until I lose my youth.” As if he heard her, the priest turned suddenly and raised his hands to heaven. A bell sounded. The priest had heavy white eyebrows, like brushes. Watching his face, Karen went on, “And I can hurry my father to death, who richly deserves it, for I see now that he is a cruel, ignorant old man who has always disguised himself with strength; and now that his strength is gone, all his failings rush out, expose themselves with pleasure! Somewhat like a shell you find by a swamp, turned over on its back and wriggling in the mud, trying by the ferocious charm of its eyes to avoid the stroke of death-which no one cares enough to give it. Father! I can accuse him of my own crime and guilt and with enough hysteria I can convince myself that I had no part in what I did-that the filthy way that strange man made love to me the first time did not have anything to do with that man’s death….”

The altar boys prepared the communion rail. Uneven white cloth, oddly clean; it looked starched. The boys did not have the stately dignity of the priest or the gravity of his old bones, and so hurried with mincing steps, genuflecting hastily, crossing themselves as if chasing away invisible flies. Karen’s sister-in-law hid a big yawn and her dull eyes brushed past Karen’s face. But most of the congregation, including Karen and her father, waited very seriously. They bowed their heads at the ringing of the bell, they knelt, they touched their breasts with their fingers. Again Karen’s mind begged mercy. She felt herself drawn along with the people, teased away from herself-even from the tiny germ of nausea that had accompanied her, secret in her stomach, for months. The past is done, her father might be trying to whisper, and what is the past at such a time? What is the past when we are approaching the transformation of Christ before our eyes? “My Lord and my God!” No one could help exclaiming this, even silently. Here is a real sacrifice, her father might say, pointing up to the altar. You think you have given yourself, you think you have been fed upon-and so in a way you have-but still you are alive, you have health and youth and beauty. Be as bitter as you like, mind your dead lover every night in detail and wrap yourself around him in sleep, and later, when you are married-of course you will be married-deceive your husband each time you give yourself to him! But still you are alive and that is a miracle. You were not crucified and changed into flat pieces of bread-and if Christ were not God, but only Christ, only a man, is His suffering any less? It is more, certainly more; we men do not have resurrections. But you are still alive. Consume yourself with bitterness, destroy your life-but remember that all that you have done is your own doing.

Karen touched her feverish skin. Her father, his beads dangling forgotten, his eyes transfixed upon the altar, did not glance at her. “But he is an ignorant old man!” Karen thought. “Never even finished school! He is ignorant and brutal, a killer, he has no right to my life, and no right to judge it….But he is my father,” she thought, “and I love him.” As the others passed out to communion she remained kneeling in the pew. Everyone in the row but the youngest children shuffled up, following the wavering lines to the communion rail. Karen watched them jealously and fondly. Were these her people? With what did they commune? When she went to communion next week, she would be giving herself to them; she would commune with them, share with them whatever experience they shared-whatever mystery it was. She recognized her home, her place. She knew where she was. “I can accept them but they will never accept me,” she thought. “They know that something is wrong with me, that my mind is wrong, put together wrong. Am I to blame for that? Can I help my mind? It is insane to look for meaning in life, and it is insane not to; what am I to do?”

After Mass there was benediction, and after benediction, while the church emptied, Karen and her father remained kneeling. The old man muttered his rosary, moving his lips: he felt guilty because he had not finished it. His mind, like Karen’s, must have wandered. Karen knelt silently beside him. At the altar the boys put out the back row of high, white, gold-tipped candles. The magic of the Mass had left, quite suddenly, but its odor still remained; incense weighed heavily on the air. In the sharp smell of the incense, in the low muffle of voices and footsteps at the back of the church, and in the vision of her father’s unbowed aged profile, Karen saw her future.

Her father put away the beads with a last contrite rattle; they stood. Karen found a child’s grimy mitten left on the bench and picked it up.

They were the last to leave the church. Out in the vestibule several old women awaited cars, their necks thick and clumsy with wool scarves. Karen took her father’s arm. He looked at her with gratitude-he was old, he did not walk so surely as he had once. And he said suddenly, embarrassed and impatient, “Karen, you are my girl, my good girl! In spite of what they say about you-You are my girl, my only girl, I forgive you anything you did, I love you.”

His words stopped. He was breathing hard, his heart must have been racing. A slow angry flush came over his face, beginning at his ears. Karen stared at the swirling snow as they stepped outside: it turned, white and cold and innocent, like the disorder of her brain. “I love you too, Father,” she whispered. He might have heard. He pulled at her arm. “Over there-there-“ he grunted, pointing at a crowded car. “There they are.” As they approached, a familiar face-one of Karen’s brothers-opened the door to receive them.

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