Space, property and the psyche: violent topographies in early Oates novels.
I suggest that this elegiac mapping should be avoided. Instead, the topographical journey I propose here implies going back to Oates's country--a space often called "America" but whose political boundaries and cultural frontiers are never clearly defined. America, we all know, is as much the substance of social-geography as of fantasy. Hence, to examine and challenge the ways in which the ongoing security of American territory has been translated into literary discourse becomes now one of our pressing tasks as readers and critics. To visit America with Oates means to hurtle through spaces marked by social inequities as well as by ideological and economic demarcations, allowing us to readdress and map out the material and psychic contours of that violence. In a recent interview with Oates, I asked her about the meanings of spaces and places in her fiction. In reply, Oates confirmed that she used to draws maps of the real and imaginary places where she intended to set her narratives. She evoked the figure of "Anthea, the mythological character who has to touch the earth and is astray from the earth," to refer to the "romantic" and sometimes "mystical" connection we establish with certain places. She added, "when I write anything it has to have some specific place and I have to know where the characters come from. But they can go somewhere else" (Araujo 93).
With a few exceptions, the US has been the major setting of Oates's fiction. However, her complex and heterogeneous approach to place has led critics to find, in her American landscapes, the influence of a number of different writers: the setting of her early works in upstate New York is often compared with Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County (Creighton 17; Johnson 16); the descriptions of working class life in the inner city are often compared with Dreiser (Bellivaqua 128; Bender 42); and her approach to the spirit of place as psychic landscape is likened to that of D. H. Lawrence (Waller 29). Yet a serious analysis of the workings of spaces in Oates's texts is still lacking. What are the private and social spaces that comprise the larger portrait of Oates's America? How can we understand the psychic weight of these spaces without losing the sense of materiality that is always also so strong in Oates's fiction? And--more poignantly--what do her texts tell us about the intricate relationship between violence, space and the psyche?
I suggest that we observe closely how character inhabits public and private spaces in Oates's early trilogy of American life. Gaston Bachelard's work has shown how spaces offer themselves, only too well, to phenomenological and literary interpretations. However, if for Bachelard space is taken as an archetypal site, for Oates private and public spaces are always heterogeneous and their experience differentiated by class, ethnicity, and gender. My aim here will not be to make a sociological study of the various spaces in Oates's fiction but to understand how they write themselves into the inner landscape of her characters. I will be particularly concerned with the way psychic and material spaces merge to produce violent writing patterns and threatening social formations. The route I invite you to take with me leads us back to them--a novel that won the National Book Award in 1970. But before we enter the throbbing heart of the city with them, there are two other places worth brief visits: the rural world of A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967) and the affluent suburbs of Expensive People (1968). According to Oates the three "were put together in parallel construction," offering a tripartite panorama of America during the second half of the twentieth century (Kuehl 308).
Originally published in 1967, A Garden of Earthly Delights is a novel rooted in land and grounded in property. (1) The novel opens with a road. We are in America during the 1930s. On the road--trying to make their way though the adversities of the Depression--travels a group of migrant workers. However, a violent collision between a car and the truck carrying the workers stages a primal moment in the novel: it triggers the birth of Clara Walpole who will be born on the road, setting the narrative in motion. Her parents and the other migrant workers can no longer envision their future, let alone their present, spatially--they have lost their sense of direction:
They talked for a while about "going back." Neither could have said in which direction Kentucky was, nor did they have any vision of "Kentucky"; what was that exactly? ... Though they had been traveling for a long time, back and forth, from south to north and back again, they did not remember anything they had seen.... They liked to stare out at the road and watch it move under them because this meant they were getting somewhere, but as for really seeing anything--no. They needed eyes only for getting around and picking fruit and taking care of themselves. (12)
Repetitions evoke the recurrent, almost circular, movement that characterizes the lives of the migrants--always moving around but never claiming a place or achieving a vision. The narrative becomes, thus, the eyes of the road. With meticulous attention to detail, Oates describes and depicts roads, camps, tents, and barracks inhabited by the migrant workers. There is a sense in which Oates does this work as laboriously as if picking fruit. As Clara's father, Carleton, says: "if anything got lost it would be that much harder to get home again" (21). Clara has no fixed home; she is born on the road, in motion. As Robert Fossum rightly points out, Oates's characters "crave an order associated with 'home'" (49-50). Clara desires precisely that. When, as a young girl, Clara hitchhikes to town with a friend, she is faced for the first time with the comforts and stability of town life; this is personified by her vision of a house that is "bright clean white like the house in that schoolbook, with trees in the front yard" (73). Clara is well aware that property depends on signs of social difference and exclusion: the house proudly exhibits a flag that hangs down from a front porch "screened off with dark, green-gray shades" (73-74). She breaks the window and steals the flag, not only trespassing in the space from which she has been excluded but also calling attention to the violence of that exclusion against the American ideal. Clara's theft is a demand for stability and belonging registered in private property.
The title and organization of Oates's novel clearly evokes Hieronymus Bosch's sixteenth-century triptych, Garden of Earthly Delights. Rose Burwell and others have explored in depth the symbolic layers of Oates's garden as a space of religious as well as pictorial and literary connotations. But it might be useful to take into account Michel Foucault's ideas on this matter. According to Foucault, the garden is the oldest example of heterotopia--a space that allows for the juxtaposition of several incompatible sites within a single real place. He mentions the rectangular Persian garden as a microcosm that brought together within it four spaces representing the four parts of the world. He adds, curiously, that carpets "were reproductions of gardens. The garden is a carpet in which the entire world attains its symbolic perfection, and the carpet is a kind of garden that moves through space" (182). In this way, Foucault not only highlights the heterotopical quality of Oates's garden, but he also turns the garden inside out and "outside in." This movement from the outside to the inside--and vice-versa--will determine our reading of Oates's novels where there is a continuous shift between two spaces. In fact, the narrative of A Garden of Earthly Delights is, as we will see, precisely about the transformation of gardens into rugs.
The plot is shaped by further displacements. Clara runs away from her family with Lowry, a young man who is unwilling to settle down and eventually leaves her alone in Tintern, a small town in the mythic territory of Eden County--a landscape that dominates many of Oates's early works, evoking her own background in upstate New York. Pregnant with Lowry's child, Clara finds another father to her "Swan" in the rich landowner, Curt Revere, who finds her a home on his land. Having finally gained some control over her own private space, Clara is "fierce with love for her home":
She had a bed and a bureau of good polished wood, and a mirror rising from it that was like no mirror she'd seen before, and a closet just for her clothes, though she hadn't many, and a chair with a pillow on it, and a table alongside the bed on which Revere put his wrist watch when he staved with her. On the wall opposite the bed was a print of the sunset, all spreading oranges and reds like pain flicked carelessly into water, with trees starkly silhouetted in black ... never in her life she had bothered to look at a real sunset. (208)
This list suggests accumulation of property as much as acquired order: the mirror above the bureau matches another mirror--a social reflection of homogeny. On the bedside table the watch discloses a signature of gendered ownership: the room and its belongings are placed under the sign of patriarchy. Yet out of this ordered domesticity, a print of the sunset strikes Clara with a paradox: "Paintings and music were meant to turn things into other things, so that the sunsets in pictures could make you cry while the real thing had no meaning at all" (208). Art provides a different form of "ownership" to the viewer; it denaturalizes landscapes, creating new meanings. In this sense, Clara's painting also reflects the main generic concern at the heart of the novel, challenging what has often been seen as the naturalism of Oates's early works. While the narrative depicts the everyday struggles of her working class characters with rigor of detail and unashamed emphasis on social experience, the apparently naturalistic landscape also becomes increasingly crowded with allegorical images, literary allusions, and metafictional comments. It is Clara's son, Swan (called Steven by his stepfather) who best voices the novel's metafictional interrogations. Although he is named after William Butler Yeats's poem Leda and the Swan, Steven does not hold the power of Yeats's mythical bird. Despite his social status and economic security, he feels he lacks control over his own life; he therefore attempts to challenge the determinism that characterizes the naturalist novel: "I don't want to be a character in a story, in a book.... I don't want to be born and die and have everyone watching me--reading along. Everything decided ahead of time" (391).
Cloistered by the comfort of the Revere household, Clara becomes increasingly obsessed with the decor of her new home. The acquisition of a fashionable "rock heavy" rug marks Clara's entrance into the garden of consumerist delights (365). As Clara's jouissance is projected onto the furniture, the consciousness of the narrative seems to be transferred to Swan. Swan becomes increasingly haunted by his role as Revere's heir: "his mystical love for this inherited land that was almost a terror in his blood" (376). Revere's land disinters an undisclosed family secret or what Abraham and Tarok called a "transgenerational phantom" (165). The land signifies economic power but also functions as an uncanny reminder of the deprivation and exclusion that Clara and that Swan's grandparents experienced. Increasingly paranoid, Swan attempts to kill his mother but cannot ultimately shoot her. Instead, he shoots Revere before committing suicide. With this final moment of violence, the novel registers a psychic impasse, both emotional and material. Swan cannot love his mother nor can he enjoy her hard-won property. For Swan, Clara had become the land (and the plot) that trapped him.
The temptations of Clara's increasing obsession with "interior design"--so characteristic of our culture today--are further explored in the second novel of the trilogy, Expensive People. Set on a very different socio-economic landscape from Oates's first novels and stories, it explores the affluent suburbs of Detroit during the 1960s. The narrative follows the Everetts as they relocate from suburb to suburb in a calculated effort to ascend the social ladder. This is also a novel grounded in property, a narrative about fictional and real estates. It is told by eighteen-year-old, evidently grotesquely overweight, Richard Everett, who presents himself from page one as both "a child murderer" and an unreliable narrator. His sharp, satirical commentaries on his parents' suburbanite lifestyle and aspirations nevertheless complement the visible effects of his psychological instability and obsessive behavior. The narrative makes an obvious departure from Oates's early novels: we are in unmistakably postmodern territory, where black humor, parody, paranoia, and uncertainty leave major tracks in the narrative. Richard's writing is accompanied by his compulsive eating. This is an attempt to fill an emptiness created by and around the figure of his mother, known by the name of Nadia Romanov, whom Richard calls "Nada." Nada is not only a glamorous suburban socialite, but she is also an ambitious writer. She has a voracious appetite for luxury and other forms of social demarcation--she demands the best neighborhood, the most exquisite clothes, and the most expensive aspirins--yet also aspires to a status of artistic and intellectual exclusivity.
Nada's evident self-absorption--her fascination with her house, her status, her accidental lovers--are experienced by Richard as violent forms of betrayal. He presents his narrative--also openly narcissistic--as memoir; on its completion, Richard plans to commit suicide. Richard recounts how, from the age of ten, he felt increasingly neglected by his parents and started to see himself as a "minor character" in his mother's social ventures and exclusive literary plots (271). But what was it about his mother's jouissance that bothered Richard so? Nada's delight with the decor of her house held secrets of power both economic and literary:
[Nada] was intoxicated with our house--with her new expensive furniture, her marble-topped table and her exquisite bookshelf, given to her by Father's great-aunt and worth--oh let me tell you!--quite a bit.... She was intoxicated with her white, white dress and her emerald necklace, and the tinkling made by ice in drinks and by the mystical sense of her being at last in power, in control, a part of the secret, invisible world that owns and controls everything.... Because Fernwood does control everything, like it or not. (65)
Social and literary demarcations depend on lineages. Oates suggests a continuum between the postmodern text of Nada and modernism, through various allusions to The Great Gatsby--a novel also concerned with the world of images, commodities, and social currencies. But Fernwood's landscape is clearly postmodern. Its anonymity represents the "invisible world that owns and controls everything" in the same way that America's economic power seems to be in the hands of those anonymous, mysterious corporations where Elwood Everett works as an executive. If the Everetts move from Brookfield to Fernwood and then to Cedar Grove, finding always the same marks of privilege and even the same faces, so does Elwood seem to shift interchangeably between a number of anonymous corporations such as GKS, BWK, OOP 9. As Oates herself notes in a 1972 essay, "Whose Side Are You On," the feeling that the world is being controlled by a secret, mysterious force becomes one of the key themes of American metafiction as fashioned by the Black humorists since the latter part of the 1960s.
Nada is a postmodern writer, and Richard follows in his mother's footsteps. They personify a radical trend in metafictional writing in America that is highly self-referential and exclusively concerned with writing about writing. According to Richard, Nada exhibits a "total lack of interest in politics, in events, in reality.... Her brain was instead stuffed with books. What was 'only real' couldn't be very important." He acknowledges her influence in his own writing: "I think my own problems with life, what is real and what is fiction in my own life, in this memoir, might come from her" (62). If in her essays of the time Oates discloses her concern for the social and emotional disengagement of some of the trends dominating the American literary scene of the seventies, then in Expensive People she attempts to situate that disengagement spatially by positing the solipsism of some postmodern writers in a context of material and intellectual privilege.
This disengagement and subsequent sense of entrapment ultimately leads Richard to accomplish (either in fantasy or fact--for this remains ambiguous in the slippery postmodern text) what Swan could not do in A Garden of Earthly Delights: commit matricide. Richard does so by enacting a story of a planned murder written by his own mother: he becomes the protagonist of her story "The Sniper." Eileen Bender sees this as Oates's critique of the "paradoxical hazards of fabulation" (37). It is, however, with a mix of irony and grief that, after Nada's death, Richard finds out the "truth" about his mother. She was not "Natashya" or "Natasha" but "Nancy Romanow," the daughter of Ukrainian emigrants--not emigres as she had suggested. She had changed her name to Nadia Romanov and presented herself as Russian--a reference that functions as an ironic homage to the arch-fabulator, Vladimir Nabokov. Nancy's parents were unmistakably working-class: her father a school janitor, her mother a housewife. Her birthplace was North Tonawanda in upstate New York. "My mind swirls to think of the leap Nancy-Natashya made, from the bland wooden-frame world of North Tonawanda to the bland headiness of Cedar Grove," confesses Richard (301). But in his punitive narrative, Nada's "leap" is never fully depicted or explained; a more developed account of Nada's background would not fit the generic requirements of Richard's inward-looking plot. "Location, location, location" becomes, thus, the reductive motto of Nada's story. Oates herself evokes the language of realtors when, in an afterword, she describes her memories of writing the novel as "tied to the upstairs, rear study of the first of the several houses of her married life, a brick colonial, modest, with four bedrooms, at 2500 Woodstock Drive, Detroit, Michigan.... The vertigo of memory haunts me in reading Expensive People," she writes. "Did expensive houses sell for as little as $80,500 in those years?" ("Confessions" 364).
There are obvious autobiographical overtones which link Oates to Nada, who is described as "an ambitious writer [punished for] having gone beyond the limits of her world--upstate New York" ("Confessions" 364). Yet Oates does not resort to psychologizing jargon and uses instead the language of finance and property to describe the experience of writing the novel. For Oates, expensive people are "tied up" with expensive houses. She establishes this connection through projections and introjections. Nada (like Clara before her) visibly projects her social ambitions and desire for comfort, stability, and control in the frames of her expensive houses. But by incorporating the features of the spaces around her, she also becomes more and more entangled with her own interior designs and solipsistic plots, resisting engagement with wider socio-economic landscapes. Both female characters, Clara and Nada, become entrapped, if not annihilated, by the very spaces that shape their privileged status. For a writer like Oates, who is interested in the social and didactic function of writing, isolation is the result of an "expensive" status. However, to evoke the language of property and finance in relation to writing--as Oates does above--is precisely to confront the inescapable spaces of capital and privilege on which both novels are grounded.
This approach to space is developed in Oate's subsequent novels. Our journey through the third novel of the trilogy, them, requires a closer reading because in the ghetto, walls and bodies, roads and buildings are brought together more tightly. Not unlike the previous novels, them focuses on the violence of economic demarcations and the ways in which these are projected spatially. The narrative encompasses the time scale of the previous novels, starting in the thirties and finishing in the late sixties. It is primarily the experience of Detroit's inner city that shapes the narrative. Oates's novel is not about the Detroit riots per se but it conveys an exhaustive--if necessarily partial--view of the urban experience that culminates in the social unrest of 1967. Despite Oates's depiction of manifold forms of racism in Detroit, particularly in the last chapters of the novel, them focuses mainly on a white, working-class family--the Wendalls. It is therefore a very white working class experience of the city that shapes the narrative.
If institutionalized racism, economic inequities, and the de-industrialization in Detroit were some of the larger causes of the 1967 riots, then these conditions were certainly reflected in the way the urban population inhabited their living spaces. Indeed, a Detroit Free Press opinion poll about the riots indicates that "poor housing" was seen by the respondents as one of the most important issues, second only to police brutality (Thomas 130-31). In her essay "Imaginary Cities," Oates contrasts the idea of urban space in the work of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century naturalists--for whom "the struggle is graphic and literal: the City is a place in which human beings die as a consequence of the unspeakable conditions of slum life"--with the work of more recent writers like Barthelme, Bellow, and Levine for whom "the struggle has become internalized, a ceaseless philosophical inquiry" (12). In them, however, Oates attempts to interweave these two traditions. Although, in the author's notes, the novel is arguably presented as "naturalistic," Oates clearly punctuates her social portrait of Detroit with incisive philosophical and metafictional commentaries that challenge the very premises of naturalism. (2)
The narrative focuses on three main characters: Loretta Wendall and her children, Jules and Maureen. The novel opens with the violent shattering of Loretta's romantic adolescence when her boyfriend is violently killed by her unbalanced brother. Loretta marries a corrupt and abusive policeman, Howard Wendall, and she eventually moves with his parents to the countryside. During the war, however, Loretta leaves her husband's home and moves to Detroit with her children. Her hometown is described as "a fair-sized city on a Midwestern canal"; the city has "grown up jaggedly around the canal, spreading out in two irregular half-moons, with bumps and hollows of still vacant land and other stretches of crowded and devastated tenement areas" (22). The canals and vacant land replicate Loretta's passivity and abandonment but also trigger her ability to daydream. Loretta retains this dreamy quality after her marriage. When she moves with her husband to a house on the south side of town, she desires most of all to blend with her surroundings:
[Loretta and her girlfriends] wanted to sink into the neighborhood, just as their flesh wanted to take seed in it and stretch itself to a more prodigious health, anxious to memorize the facade of each house they passed, comparing, accepting, recognizing by the pattern of a pillow out on someone's porch swing the very same pattern of the curtains in their parents' front room or their grandparents' front room--so everything flowed together, warm and jumbled and sweet. (44)
The languid rhythm of the sentence conveys an intense longing for stability and social connection. The language of sexuality transforms itself into a discourse of and about regulated health and social approval. Yet when Loretta moves to the city, the novel's language becomes syncopated and fissured. Her home cannot really obstruct the chaos and dangers of the city. The walls in the inner city are too shaky to completely sustain the separation between private and public places. External forces continuously threaten the private sphere. Loretta offers us an unmistakably gendered experience of the city where boundaries between the body and the city have also broken down:
You remember out in the country? Then we came to Detroit? Then all them dumps, them bus rides? I can't stand always moving around! I want my own place, my own house. I want to be like somebody in a movie, I want to get dressed up and walk down the street and know something important will happen, like this man who was killed because of me.... I wasn't meant to be like this--I mean, stuck here. Really I wasn't. I don't look like this. I mean, my hair, and I'm too fat. I don't really look like this, I look a different way. And the toilet is bad again, there's water on the floor, well. I can't give a goddam about that, I wasn't born to mop up every toilet in the city...." (108)
A continuum is established between internal and external spaces that denaturalizes the very boundaries of the body. Loretta's introjection of the debris of the tuner city is evident in her juxtaposition of sentences: "I don't really look like this, I look a different way. And the toilet is bad again." Like the toilet that has been flooded, Loretta feels that she has let herself go: she is fat, disheveled, excessive. She personifies abjection in Kristeva's sense of the word. Kristeva's concept is particularly useful here because it brings forth the idea of the maternal, which Loretta also personifies. For Kristeva, abjection results from the experience of loss resulting from the child's separation from the mother inherent to the process of individuation. This is accompanied by a necessary rejection of those borderline elements (such as hair, nails, and excrement) that threaten the autonomous identity of the subject in the presence of disorder, filth, and chaos. The rejection of these polluting fluids and substances--reminders of a moment of absolute connection with the mother's body--is imposed socially by means of social rituals articulated within the logic of the symbolic order. The maternal becomes, in this way, connoted with those defiling elements. In Loretta's case her own sense of abjection is not only evoked by her maternal identity, but also heightened by her status, her place within the inner city where walls and borders are insecure. Loretta simply wants "to get dressed up and walk down the street," but when she does so she is immediately arrested for looking like a prostitute. Her escape from the ghetto is possible only in dreams--in the idealized settings of Hollywood movies.
Loretta and her children move from neighborhood to neighborhood, but their new houses are always equally disenchanting. Loretta's daughter, Maureen, feels particularly threatened in the city. As a woman, she also resents being confined in the private space of the home: "she was getting too old to explore buildings and vacated houses, too conscious of herself as a girl to run yelling through warehouses with a bunch of other kids" (117). Their house--which now also accommodates her stepfather, Furlong--is always too noisy and crowded for her taste; there is always too much for Maureen to wash, clean, and tidy. Whenever she is free she drifts to the library, where she can retreat into the world of books. These ordered and structured narratives provide her with spaces of hope: "this was real: the world of this novel was real. Her own life over Elson's Drugs or back on Labrosse, could not be real" (166). At home she shares a bed with her sister, Betty, but the "neatness on Maureen's side of the room, the made-up bed and the small row of books along the floor," suggests "that no one [lived] here permanently" (189).
Maureen sees money as the only way to achieve control over her life, and she eventually prostitutes herself. But when her stepfather finds out about this, he beats her so brutally that she ends up in a coma. When Maureen finally regains consciousness, the first image we have of her evokes Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper." Opening her eyes for the first time in months, she notices that "the ceiling is arranged in a certain way. It does not move up or down. Wallpaper pasted over wallpaper, thickness upon thickness. Curls form. Patches are about to fall" (292). Maureen knows that "if [she] allows herself to think about the wallpaper she will get sick (293). Gilman's story of mental deterioration and female imprisonment in the domestic sphere is particularly interesting for the ways in which it exposes the mechanisms of projection that characterize the protagonist's relationship with the space that confines her--emblematized by the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. These are, as I have been suggesting so far, also important mechanisms at work in Oates's texts. In Maureen's case, the relationship between space, violence and the psyche is particularly intense. Maureen deals with her conflicting feelings--both her fears of violence and her own sense of entrapment--by conjuring catastrophic visions of Detroit: "Sometimes she thought idly about earthquakes, fires, buildings cracking in two. She thought about accidents in which automobiles piled on top of each other, one after another" (182). In-these apocalyptic visions Maureen merges two emblematic epitomes of Detroit that Oates uses in an article about the city: Detroit is seen both as "Motor City, USA" and "Murder City, USA" ("Visions" 308). What is also interesting here is the way in which Maureen's catastrophic landscapes will be projected onto the streets of Detroit later on in the text. It is as if these images have been "ejected" from her eyes. The psychoanalyst W. R. Bion describes the concept of hallucination in two ways: "This I put forward as the first step of hallucinatory phenomena: if the patient sees an object it may mean that an external object has been perceived by him or it may mean that he is ejecting an object through his eyes" (67). This second process seems to be at work in Maureen's unsettling relation with the urban space.
Halfway through the novel, the main narrative is unexpectedly interrupted by a conspicuously metafictional section. We are presented with several letters from Maureen to "Miss Oates," her former English teacher, who had not previously been presented as a character in the novel. The letters reinforce a pseudo-biographic aspect to the novel, reinforcing Oates's claims--in the author's note that precedes the text--that the narrative of them was based on the life of one of her students at the University of Detroit. (3) Maureen asks her teacher, among other things, about the social function of literature. She is particularly skeptical about the possibility suggested by "Miss Oates" that literature can give form to life. Could literature really give form to a world such as hers, "out of control, crazy" (310)? Maureen is well aware of the gap between her world and the middle class world Miss Oates inhabits. Realizing she has had little control over the plot of her life, Maureen makes a bold metafictional demand on Miss Oates: "I don't ask to turn into you but to see myself like this: living in a house out of the city, a ranch house or a colonial house, with a fence around the back...a bedroom for my husband and me, a window in the living-room looking out onto the lawn and the street and the house across the street" (315).
The vision Maureen demands is, simply, that of a middle class home. However, Maureen is left to her own devices and, therefore, works to achieve her vision with what seems to be calculated precision: she finds a suitable husband in Jim Randolph, also a teacher. He is not a wealthy man but--after his divorce--he can give her the middle class life she aspires to and her dream home in the suburbs. Their relationship starts with a romantic displacement: one day after a class, he gives her a lilt and drives her to her small one-bedroom flat. Maureen's private space captivates and captures Jim Randolph:
The small room unfolded itself to him in blotches--a brown sofa, a chair, a cheap, shiny-topped table with a few plates and cups on it. She hadn't expected visitors. A breakfast table? Was this room a kitchen too? Yes, he saw a small refrigerator in a corner, and a sink ... and this sofa obviously turned itself into a bed by strenuous magic ... the room's walls shuddered and lost their shape before his eyes. He smelled perfume or food. (407)
The room holds secrets and unfolds itself as a love letter, promising sensual metamorphoses: the sofa turns itself into a bed and the smell of food is confused with that of perfume. This is a humble and relatively unfurnished flat, yet its unfilled spaces only heighten Maureen's solitude and her implied demand for companionship. The flat is self-contained but Maureen is not; she is visibly incomplete. Despite--or perhaps because of--its modest, empty decor, this space asks to be occupied by romantic images. This could be "a scene out of a magazine set or a movie," thinks Randolph. He imagines himself "a detective searching for someone.... Or perhaps he was only pursuing the girl, himself on his own, having trailed her remorselessly to this city. He followed her to this particular house, which was nowhere" (407). Yet, for Maureen this utopian "nowhere" is certainly out of Detroit.
For Maureen's brother, Jules Wendall, America is a place shaped by violence. As a child, while they are still living in the country, Jules sets fire to an old barn. The fire runs "toward the cobweb roof like lightning in reverse, striking Jules with its beauty" (67). This becomes a primal scene in the novel that will be evoked several times later in the narrative. The memory of the flaming barn is first revisited when, in a doctor's waiting room, Jules reads the following statement by the Hindu guru Vinoba Bhave in a magazine: "my object is to transform the whole of society. Fire merely burns.... Fire burns and does its duty. It is for others to do theirs" (95). He rejects Bhave's spiritual world and twists the meaning of his words, giving them a personal ironic significance. He can "believe in fire and in himself," and he too will "do his duty" (96). In the inner city "his duty" seems to be, first and above all, to protect his family and to make money. But Jules is also an incongruously romantic young man. James R. Giles sees him as a "mixture of romantic idealist and romantic adventurer" (177). His romantic idealism is best emblematized in his relationship with Nadine Greene, the niece of the wealthy--but ultimately corrupt--Bernard Geffen who becomes Jules's boss and mentor. Nadine is Nada's alter ego--her surname alludes to the color of money, as well as to the color of the light that represented Gatsby's dreams for the future in Fitzgerald's novel. Yet Nadine lacks Nada's literary ambitions and social aspirations. She is a depressive young woman who cannot find meaning in her comfortable and wealthy lifestyle. Jules's desire for Nadine is genuine, but it cannot be disconnected from the socioeconomic landscape she represents. As Cologne-Brookes points out, Jules's romantic attachment is not dissimilar to those of Clara and Maureen: "Their fantasies are born of social deprivation even as their lover's fantasies involve romantic yearnings to escape material contentment" (42).
When Jules first visits Nadine at her home, he wants "to be the carpet beneath her feet, feeling that delicate pressure" (258). He projects his status onto the rug: "he had no direction in which to go except up ... everything was above him, all of America." The rug represents, again here, the bottom of a garden of material delights. The possibility of their connection leaves Jules with a hallucinatory perception of space: "Pieces of furniture seemed to move backwards from them, against walls, giving them room" (262). However, it is the sight of Nadine's bedroom that, more than other space, confirms her significance for Jules: unlike his sisters' bedrooms which "had not been real rooms," this one "belonged to Nadine and had been built around her, built for her and her alone. Her price was beyond estimation" (263). Nadine's value seems to be beyond capital. Faced with the intensity of Jules's desire for her, Nadine hopes to be rescued from her own emotional apathy.
At her request, he runs away with her to Texas, but Nadine's feelings for Jules are ultimately fickle. When Jules becomes ill, Nadine abandons him, feverish and penniless, in a cheap hotel in Texas. Jules eventually recovers but, ironically, can only find work as a test subject for medical experiments. Despite their humiliating separation, he meets Nadine again, soon after he returns to Detroit. Nadine, now married, is apparently more confident with the patterns of leisure and consumption that dominate her life. Yet she wants to see Jules again. She rents an apartment where they can meet in private and resume their relationship. In this broad long room
there were only two chairs--one an old fashioned chair with a green silk seat, perhaps an antique or a reproduction, the other an ordinary straight back chair.... The sun shone through the leaves outside the window and blossomed into a thousand glimmering dots. "We're in a painting. People in a painting," Jules said hungrily, thinking of a nameless painting he'd seen once in the art museum, years ago, on one of his wandering, curious days around that part of the city. It had seemed, then, to hold a secret for him--the way out of Detroit. (361)
The two chairs announce a difference of status: one is a luxurious, classy item, the other a modest, standard chair. But Jules feels comfortable in the stylish room. The sunset adds to Jules's sense of defamiliarization--a feeling that he discernibly associates with art. Like Clara's sunset print, Loretta's romantic films, and Maureen's novels, art creates here promises of displacement. But this idyllic moment ends tragically when Nadine proves to be profoundly disturbed; unable to come to terms with the attraction she feels for Jules, she points a gun at him and shoots him.
Jules's capacity to survive continues to astonish. He does not die from his wounds but is left, for the first time, with no real sense of direction. In this aimless state he drifts through the city as the 1967 riots begin. Standing in front of an antique shop and its "quiet dusty furniture," Jules initially receives the news about the race riots with disbelief: "How could anything happen on this earth? How could anything begin to move? Everything was stationary, weighed down" (422). Yet, the city seems to come to life, sucking Jules into its violent chaos. The sense of urban unrest that Maureen predicted materializes here. The pressure of objects and places seems to take control of Jules, but the hallucinatory experience of the city threatens to assume the logic of social determinism: "Somewhere a window awaited him. Or a gun" (455). Indeed, Jules ends up killing a policeman--but the meaning of his action is somehow dissolved and too easily undermined by the overall disorder of the chaotic city. The self-destructive violence that characterizes the riots--a violence directed primarily against the very strata from which the rioters come-is dehumanized when projected onto the city. The city is personified as a self-harmer. Indeed, for Jules, the boundaries between city and citizens, pleasure and pain have momentarily collapsed:
He moved down the street. The street itself was moving. Heads bobbing. One block down there were trees arching over the street. No shade here. Someone knocked over a trash can, and it rolled angrily past Jules.... The papers inside the trash can burst into flame. A miracle. Something shattered. (456)
But for the rest of the nation, these acts of violence need to be explained; the chaotic images need clear captions. Hence Mort Piercy, a professor of sociology linked to the University of Detroit, is invited to speak on television. His speech translates the violence into political terms by evoking the degrading images of the ghetto. "I have been in rat-infested buildings, in filthy rooms where fifteen or more people live and sleep, and I know," he says, "I know that our society must be leveled before a new beautiful, peaceful society can be erected (474). The TV commentator searches for less academic answers among Piercy's "coworkers." The camera then focuses on Jules, who had become accidentally (rather than ideologically) involved with Piercy's projects. Although Jules recognizes the visible brutality of race discrimination and the anonymous violence of the capitalism system, his words do not coincide with Piercy's enlightened message. Subverting again Bhave's mystical formula, Jules says:
It is only necessary to understand that fire burns and does its duty, perpetually, and the fires will never be put out.... Everyone must live through it again and again, there's no end to it, no land to get to, no clearing in the midst of the cities--who wants parks in the midst of the cities!--parks won't burn! (473-74)
Jules's comments create a mix of embarrassment and grief. Despite Percy's efforts, Jules has not incorporated--or attempted to create--a political language capable of translating the violence he has experienced. Jules's apocalyptic words are meant neither to explain, nor to clarify--they are incendiary. Parks won't burn? No clearing in the midst of the cities? Their meanings begin to break down, in the same way that the city has broken down. The narrative voice also adds to the general sense of confusion, failing to explain or clarify the tumult of words and actions. Here, in the chaos of space and language, the reader's search for meaning is simply frustrated. We are left with broken buildings and shattered subjectivities. By juxtaposing buildings and bodies, characters and spaces, in such a violent way, Oates heightens their materiality only to deprive them of meaning. Indeed, the riots are experienced by Jules as a moment of hallucination. During this period of unrest, Jules's words and actions bend towards the psychotic. However, by the end of the novel, we find Jules again composed. He is about to depart for California with Mort Piercy, who finds him a place in an anti-poverty program. Despite his history of violence, Jules manages to leave Detroit, reaching out, yet again, for a space of hope.
Violence and madness have maintained an undeniable presence in the Oates canon. They certainly mold the three early novels we have observed here. So recurrently were these terms used in the early criticism of Oates's novels that, in recent approaches to her work, such references have almost become unfashionable. Yet they remain relevant. Without wanting to overemphasize the idea of social "trauma"--a word that seems to dominate literary theory today--I would like to suggest that violence and madness are, in fact, crucial for the understanding of the experience of space in Oates's novels. Oates's private and public spaces are never tamed. When we least expect it, they become alive, creating hallucinatory landscapes that incorporate social and economic anxieties, exposing fears and desires shaped by class.
This trilogy draws the reader into spaces of labor, leisure, confinement, and romance. All of these are grounded in capital; they are either built upon the violence of social inequities or fashioned against them. In fact, rereading Oates's trilogy reminds us that a certain type of violence continues to haunt many of "our" (western) so-called "civilized" nations. This most threatening violence does not come from "outside"; it does not need to hide in the rucksack of a suicide bomber. This violence is already here in a variety of other guises--through social restrictions, economic policies, and prevailing sources of inequality. In this sense, Oates's "American" trilogy can, at the very least, remind us that the spaces that we are now attempting so desperately to secure are, in many ways, already spaces of violence.
UNIVERSITY OF SUSSEX, ENGLAND
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(1) In 2003 Joyce Carol Oates created a revised edition of A Garden of Earthly Delights, published by the Modern Library. However, in this article, I will only refer to the original version.
(2) There has been an interesting debate among Oates's critics about the categorization of them as a naturalistic novel. For an overview of the debate see Giles 169-170. them is introduced by an author's note describing the novel as "a work of history in fictional form-that is, in personal perspective, which is the only kind of history that exists" (4). According to this note. the novel was based on the life of "Maureen Wendall," one of Oates's night students at the University of Detroit. Oates adds, perhaps disingenuously, that "nothing in the novel has been exaggerated in order to increase the possibility of drama-indeed the various sordid and shocking events of slum life, detailed in other naturalistic works, have been understated here, mainly because of my fear that too much reality would become unbearable" (5).
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|Title Annotation:||Joyce Carol Oates|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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