The art of democracy: photography in the novels of Joyce Carol Oates/Rosamond Smith.
This paper will argue the need to read Oates and Smith as separate authorial entities so that we may observe, to begin with, that both Oates and Smith affirm a democratic vision, which raises the question: given Oates's use of a pseudonym, is this vision somehow double, or divided? I want to be clear at the outset that I am not seeking to construct a unified author. Although it would be possible to examine what Julia Kristeva terms the writer's "intrapsychic" status in Because It Is Bitter and The Barrens by analyzing the writer's position relative to frequently employed intertexts (Waller 280-81)--in particular, Hieronymous Bosch's triptych, "A Garden of Delights"; William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; and Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil--such a study is not the goal of this paper. (2) I am not engaged in a search for intra-psychic traces nor in what Peter Rabinowitz characterizes as "a search for the author's private psyche"; rather, this paper reads both novels "in a particular socially constituted way that is shared by the author and his or her expected readers" (22), that is, through a study of Oates's (or Smith's) manipulation of novelistic conventions and intertexts. For example, both novels critique the myth of the isolated, competitive individual and the privatized family; however, because The Barrens is a parody of a subgenre, the psychological thriller, Smith employs techniques different from those Oates employs in Because It Is Bitter.
These differences may be understood by expanding Kristeva's concept of the fluid subject--the subject in process--to include the authorial subject. In other words, as Oates re-visions different genres, she divides her consciousness not only into different characters but also into different authorial personae. As Oates herself has suggested, a writer's identity, in contrast to her social identity, is playfully fluid; hence, the verb writing is more accurate than the noun writer. Oates argues further, using terms similar to Kristeva's, that if a writer can multiply her subjectivity through the creation of characters, she is, by creating a pseudonym, simply carrying "the mysterious process a step or two further, erasing the author's social identity and supplanting it with the pseudonymous identity" ("Pseudonymous Selves" 397). To state the matter briefly, an author who divides herself up lavishly among her characters may just as easily divide herself into two, or more, authorial identities. (3) Many authors have created pseudonyms (4)--Doris Lessing, for instance--and they have given different reasons for doing so. Likewise, many novelists have employed doubles--Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer is a well-known example--in different ways and for different reasons (see Guerrard and Slethang). Twenty years ago, Oates herself announced that she had an authorial double named Fernandes whom she identified on the cover of The Poisoned Kiss (1975). So strong a character was Fernandes that Oates seems to have experienced his "voice" as a co-author to her own. (5)
Oates has offered less mysterious explanations, both personal and playful, for creating a "twin" author, Rosamond Smith; but in my view, neither answer is complete. Her fascination with twins, she says, has roots in personal experience: an autistic sister, who looks much like her but cannot speak, was born on her eighteenth birthday. This fascination with twins, or doubles, is evident in all the Rosamond Smith novels, (6) from Lives of the Twins (1987) to The Barrens (2001). Oates has also explained that she created a pseudonym in an attempt to escape her critics. Writing under a different name would, she hoped, allow her greater freedom for play. While linguistic playfulness is certainly evident in both Because It Is Bitter and The Barrens, such playfulness, this paper will argue, is wedded to serious intentions: doubles, sometimes photographic, are employed to undermine "the myth of the isolated individual" while photographic techniques akin to deep focus and photomontage promote a greater awareness of our collective democratic identity. These aesthetic techniques are certainly playful, but they are also political. In an era of increasing privatization, and its heightened emphasis on the autonomous individual and on family "values," collective caretaking is being undermined even as the gap between rich and poor widens.
By contrast, Oates's wide-angle vision invites readers to consider themselves in relationship to society as a whole. There is a great need to emphasize our collective interdependence at this moment in American history, according to Martha Fineman, professor of law and interdisciplinary studies, because unless we acknowledge the need for caretaking in the aggregate, not only between individuals or within families, there can be no society. Oates has long promoted a similar view in critical essays and interviews. For example, in 1972 she told Walter Clemons of Newsweek, "We are interconnected--it seems we are individual and separate, whereas in fact we're not" (73-74). Because It Is Bitter and The Barrens are informed by this vision of our inter-relatedness, our kinship; however, they also differ, as all of Oates's novels differ, because of her inventiveness, her continuing experimentation with genres, and her acute sensitivity to changes in sociopolitical conditions. She has, for instance, set some recent novels in the 1950s and 1960s, not primarily out of nostalgia for the era of her own adolescence but to suggest to readers, as she does in Because It Is Bitter and You Must Remember This, that we are, in the present era, coming dangerously close to repeating America's "innocent" age of McCarthyism.
Because Rosamond Smith writes in a different genre (or subgenre), her narrative techniques differ from those of Joyce Carol Oates. Engagement with different genres, as Oates explains in the preface to Mysteries of Winterthurn, "forces us inevitably to a radical re-visioning of the world and the craft of fiction" ([Woman] Writer 372). In order to transform the world and the craft of fiction, it is necessary, of course, to reach as many readers as possible. Indeed, one reason Oates may have continued to write "with" Rosamond Smith even after her "cover was blown" (Wolf 16) is her discovery that the psychological thriller--a "masculine" genre defined by its isolated, competitive hero--not only had great potential for feminist parody but would also attract a much larger audience. Since Oates's first anti-thriller, the postmodern Mysteries of Winterthurn, was read primarily by academics, she apparently decided that only by using a pseudonym could she reach the much larger audience of readers of crime novels. That Oates is interested in reaching this larger audience is evident in her willingness to be pictured in the New York Times with other "popular" crime writers--Bob Leuci, P. D. James, Jerome Charyn and Andrew Vachss (Collins B1). The desire for a large readership is also evident in her appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show (8 March 2001) and in the recent publication of such young adult novels as Big Mouth and Ugly Girl (2002). This democratic stance, a refusal to distance her work from readers outside the academy, is consistent with the vision of her fiction which honors ordinary Americans, regardless of educational level, social class, gender, race, sexuality, or age.
Oates's critique of undemocratic hierarchies, including the destructive effects of competitive individualism on the human potential for love, is as evident in her recent novels as in her first, With Shuddering Fall (1964). Yet Because It Is Bitter and The Barrens differ from her earlier novels because they borrow techniques from photography to challenge generic conventions that undermine the American dream of dignity and justice for all. In this way, Oates's fiction "is profoundly political," as Marita Golden remarks, "and she is making a political statement about how people digest dreams and how those dreams just destroy them" (92). Such dreams are digested through the verbal and the visual arts, including photography. For this reason, Oates has long parodied novelistic conventions that dehumanize the poor--as, for example, in the mock-naturalism of them (1970). In Because It Is Bitter and The Barrens, she challenges both novelistic and photographic conventions that undermine our democratic society. It might be assumed, for example, that because photography is available to ordinary people, it is a democratic art. Indeed, a girl like Laney in Childwold is more likely to have been photographed at home or at school--or even to have snapped photographs herself--than she is to have viewed oil paintings in an art gallery. Unfortunately, certain photographic practices, such as portraiture, obstruct our concern for society as a whole by focusing narrowly on individuals or the family. As Ann Burlein points out, when James Dobson calls on those who wish to save America to "Focus on the Family," he "presupposes a public that denies its broad interconnectedness" (314). By contrast, to remind readers of their interconnectedness, Oates employs such photographic techniques as photomontage and deep focus in Because It Is Bitter.
Photomontage and Deep Focus in Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart
As Ellen Esrock argues in The Reader's Eye, "A visual image might serve as a general representation unifying large upper-level segments of text" (190). In Because It Is Bitter, the image of the photomontage, or collage, organizes both upper- and lower-level segments of the novel. Whereas most contemporary novels focus on a single family, the upper-level collage in Because It Is Bitter consists of four families, all part of the body politic. Indeed, the novel's section titles--"Body," "Torsion," and "Ceremony"--apply not only to individual bodies but also to society's body, as if to emphasize the idea that the-one-and-the-many, the-many-and-the-one, are indivisible. The photomontages that Leslie Courtney displays in the window of his studio illustrate how this vision of interconnectedness is enacted in lower-level segments of the novel. Both upper- and lower-level photomontages are set against class and racial hierarchies delineated primarily through young Iris Courtney's interactions with four families: the Garlocks, poor working whites; the Fairchilds, working-class African Americans; the Courtneys, who begin as lower middle-class whites; and the Savages, wealthy and highly educated whites. At lower-level segments of the text, individuals are also linked through a narrative strategy that, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. observes, is comparable in effect to the photographic technique of "deep focus" (27); that is, we see both minor and major characters with equal clarity and in interdependent relationships that, finally, undercut social hierarchies.
The photomontages of Iris's Uncle Leslie convey a message of broad social kinship and interdependence by placing individual portraits of children, white or black, within a single tree of life. Unfortunately, Iris learns about racism from adults as well as children, and when she becomes a scholarship student at Syracuse University, she learns that photography has no place in the visual canon. Iris notes, for example, that Professor Savage "doesn't so much as mention photography" (287) in his art history course; instead, he promotes a visual canon that mirrors a class structure in which his is a highly privileged position. Moreover, through the omission of photography in his survey of art history, Professor Savage erases the artistic contribution of nineteenth-century artists who, like Iris's uncle, created photomontages. Such erasures are not "innocent" for, as Nanette Salomon emphasizes, "The omission of whole categories of art and artists has resulted in an unrepresentative and distorting notion of who contributed to 'universal' ideas expressed through creativity and aesthetic effort" (222). While attending lectures in art history, Iris observes that Dr. Savage's voice "quavers with passion when he discusses what he calls 'the great tradition' in Western art ... the subject of his numerous books and monographs" (271). Here is an example of how, as John Berger argues, the history of art is "mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes" (11).
Oates differentiates her position from that of Professor Savage--with a "side-long" glance at readers, to use Bakhtin's phrase (7)--by giving the name of "Savage" to the upper-class art historian's family and naming the working-class African American family "Fairchilds." As the authorial narrator, Oates also distances herself from "the great tradition" by putting the expression inside quotation marks each time she uses it. Through the novel's collage of four families, Because It Is Bitter champions the democratic and aesthetic vision of photographer Leslie Courtney even though Iris, who yearns to become part of the Savage family, decides while attending college that her uncle's "profession, or trade, of photography seems less attractive now--since her exposure to the high ground of art history and 'the great tradition'" (287). Because of Iris's youth and emotional vulnerability, she finds it difficult to openly resist the views of her powerful professor; as a result, her education in art history is not emancipatory. Nor is Iris liberated by the debate between "the great traditions" of painting and the supposedly "lesser tradition" of photography, which is presented as a competition between the Savage father and son. For example, when son Alan Savage asserts, in opposition to his father, that "Art is for a specific time and a specific place; 'art for all ages' is bogus" (327), Iris understands that neither man would regard her uncle's photography as significant. Yet according to art historian Michael Auping, collage is one of the most significant art forms of twentieth century; moreover, collage signified and participated in a democratic social movement that emphasized non-hierarchical relationships and the principal of cultural hybridity.
Moreover, although Iris does not say it aloud, she also sees--with the camera-like "irises" of her eyes--that Alan shares Man Ray's view that women are meant to be the object of the male artist's gaze. As Alan tells her, when Man Ray's mistress left him, he "revenged himself upon her by 'breaking her up': that is, fragmenting visual representations of parts of her body and using them in his art. ('Of course, says Alan Savage, seemingly with utter conviction, 'the artist's supreme revenge is his art')" (337). Alan's own personal history, his homosexual desire, is concealed behind this conviction; nevertheless, he professes, along with the surrealists, that "personal history is irrelevant" (327) to the artist. When Alan describes Iris as a "Botticelli" and holds her head in his hands "as if he is a kissing a work of art" (336-37), she recognizes that he, like Man Ray, "dislikes women" (336). Nevertheless, she acquiesces to Alan's effort to subject her to his gaze, just as Kiki, Man Ray's mistress, had acquiesced when he had "designed" her face (344), shaving off her eyebrows and redrawing them.
In contrast to either of the Savages, father or son, Oates affirms deeply personal, emotional responses to art. For example, just as Laney is moved to tears by the beauty of working-class people, her people, Iris is stunned by the photographs in her uncle's studio which remind her, "You are going to die; here's proof" (58). Ordinarily, Iris stifles such feelings in the presence of the Savages; however, on one occasion, her feelings are so strong that they slip past her practiced self-censorship. During a dinner-table conversation, Dr. Savage asks Iris's opinion of Hieronymous Bosch's "The Garden of Delights" after explaining that, although "surely it is a riddle," he is "ambivalent" toward the triptych after decades of study. Iris replies, with passion: "The code of the work doesn't matter, the 'meaning' doesn't matter, it's the fact of the work, whether, seeing it, you are stopped dead in your tracks ... nothing else matters" (292). Afterward, Iris is "embarrassed, chagrined," realizing she had "spoken disparagingly of the very enterprise of art history and iconography, Dr. Savage's religion" (292-293). Dr. Savage is, however, only amused by a young woman whose opinion he obviously does not regard highly enough to contest.
Through such conversations among the Savages, Oates emphasizes how one's views of art are conditioned not only by one's schooling or lack of schooling but also by one's socioeconomically constructed subjectivity or position. For example, when Mrs. Savage tells her Thanksgiving dinner guests how the Savage family was founded by one Ezra Savage, a pioneer woodware dealer in Syracuse, Iris enters the conversation by paraphrasing a frequently repeated remark from Dr. Savage's lectures: that "history can be interpreted, some theorists think, as the story of just a few individuals' destinies ... a few very special men, geniuses" (286). To this flattery, Mrs. Savage replies, "Oh, it is!" Oates-as-narrator then tells us, in an aside, that Byron Savage has been paraphrasing Nietzsche without attribution. Even though Iris later recognizes that Professor Savage has borrowed from Nietzsche, she says nothing. Yet, to stress individual biographies imposes a limitation. As Salomon points out, in art history this manipulative system "ties a work of art to a notion of inaccessible genius and thereby effectively removes it from consideration as a real component in a process of social exchange that involves both production and consumption" (223). To counter Savage's "great man" theory of history, Oates presents readers with the artistic creations of lower middle-class photographer, Leslie Courtney.
As readers, we may acknowledge the democratic vision implicit in Leslie Courtney's photomontage of individual children, but his customers do not understand. Indeed, they are offended when they see, in Leslie's shop window, "a large frame photomontage":
In it, hundreds of children's faces are squeezed together in a vertiginous crush, multiplied by mirroring and repetition techniques in the shape of a Christmas tree: MERRY CHRISTMAS 1949! The caption reads in silver lettering. Both white and Negro children are in the composition. Iris recalls that her own face, at the age of seven, is somewhere in the design, in fact several times, but she has forgotten where. (60)
Uncle Leslie is surprised and hurt by the adverse reaction of parents, as well as by a newspaper columnist who describes Leslie Courtney as "eccentric" (61). When Iris tries to comfort him by explaining, tactfully, "Maybe the faces are too small. For the parent's taste, I mean," Leslie resists, insisting on a collective vision: "But that was the idea of the constellation as a form. And theme, too--individual faces are small, in the tree of life. Obviously!" Leslie's art, like Whitman's, is described as "additive," inspired by his desire, to photograph "every soul" (56) in America, without regard to their class, race, or gender.
Oates, as the authorial narrator, clearly shares Leslie's democratic vision, a vision that differs considerably, aesthetically and socially, from either of the male Savages. Despite Alan Savage's knowledge of the history of photography, for example, he does not recognize the social implications of Leslie's photomontages when he views them in Iris's small $30-a-month rented room. He expresses appreciation for the collage, at least for its use of an "old" technique (344), but he considers it merely as "odd" and "quaint," remarks based on the mistaken assumption that his own stance toward art is "apolitical." Alan's blindness to the political implications of Leslie's photomontage is underscored in its caption: "And the Light Shineth in the Darkness; and the Darkness Comprehended it Not" (344). Leslie's art attempts to shine a light into the darkness, or ignorance, of Alan's life, but Alan's privileged position blinds him to the democratic aesthetic of the photomontage. The collage not only challenges the "great man" theory of history, social or artistic, but it also rejects unjust racial hierarchies. Even as a young girl, Iris had understood that her uncle's collages violated racist norms of the era, as evident when she explained to her uncle, "you know, whites and colored mixed ... that offends some people. Some parents" (61). Iris learns from her uncle's art, as well as from the noble actions of Verlyn "Jinx" Fairchild, who defends her from an attack by Wesley "Little Red" Garlock, that blacks and whites need each other even though they are defined in racist terms, in hierarchical opposition.
As indicated through Iris's gift of a Civil War photograph to Jinx, the "fate" of Verlyn Rayburn Fairchild contrasts sharply with that of Alan Savage, the young man she marries at the novel's close. While still in high school, Iris tries to show her love for Jinx by honoring his bravery with a Civil War photograph that she finds in her uncle's collection:
Stiffly posed across a rural bridge, reflections sharp in the water and sky, in the background massed with junglelike foliage, are a band of Union soldiers, some on horseback, most on foot, and among the foot soldiers are several black men, uniformed like the rest. The caption, in faded ink, reads Military bridge across the Chikahominy, 1864. (188)
Jinx studies the photograph, which "stirs him to an emotion he can't name"; nevertheless, when Iris says, "one of your actual ancestors might be there. On the bridge," Jinx reacts with hostility and silence: "Pissy little white girl, he's thinking. Neck not worth wringing" (189). Iris does not understand that because the intelligent young Jinx has not read history books describing his forefathers as "great men," he is not in a position to recognize his rightful relationship to this historic photograph. Instead, as a high school student, Jinx was subjected to racism by a white high school teacher who, assuming one of his race lacked intelligence, accused him of plagiarizing ideas for an essay.
Another narrative technique, which Gates likens to "deep focus," undercuts social hierarchies by allowing us to see "minor" characters as if they were, for the moment, "major." As Gates remarks, Oates "gives minor characters carefully limned personalities and histories where an impressionistic blur might have sufficed" (27). For example, following the death of Kennedy, Iris remembers seeing a reproduction of Titian's painting, Marsyas Flayed by Apollo, and she associates Titian's depiction of "the skinning alive of a satyr who's in fact a human being" (378) not only with John F. Kennedy, a "minor" character, but also with Jinx, a "major" character. This image of suffering, of skinning or boiling alive, is reproduced without hierarchy in a number of other bodies: that of "Little Red" Garlock, who is nearly boiled alive by his mother; Iris's mother, Persia, who in a moment of alcohol-induced madness accidentally burns and blisters herself ; and Jinx's brother, Woodrow Wilson "Sugar Baby" Fairchild, who is boiled alive by rival drug dealers. His body is found "stabbed superficially a dozen times, pushed naked into a bathtub, covered with gallons of boiling water so that his skin reddens, blisters, bursts, peels away from his flesh, and, while he's still alive, his several killers stand over him jeering and urinating on him" (305). In this way, Titian's Marsyas Flayed by Apollo is treated not as a holy relic or an "original" to be worshipped by museum-goers, but democratically as a "reproduction" of shared suffering.
Such interconnectedness is reiterated in the fluid social positions of various characters, thereby suggesting the superficiality of such identities. As noted by Gavin Cologne-Brookes, for example, the beautiful Persia Courtney and the "bag lady" Vesta Garlock--end up exchanging positions: as the novel opens, Persia is filled with shock and pity at conditions in the Garlock home, but following her divorce and descent into alcoholism, Persia's life deteriorates while Vesta's improves. A similar reversal is apparent in the lives of Persia and Leslie: following Persia's death, Leslie stops drinking and moves his studio to the "sunny side of the street" (a phrase echoing the lyrics of a popular song of the period). As characters move up and down the social scale, the ceremonies of their lives also shift fluidly from comic to tragic. For example, Iris and Jinx are united by a "ceremony" of violence--Jinx's accidental killing of Little Red to protect Iris--that functions as a shadow ceremony of Iris's wedding to Alan in the epilogue. Iris's marriage to Alan, an upper-class white man, has as its "negative" Verlyn's death in Vietnam. As we learn from a photograph--inscribed with the words, "Honey, do you think I'll pass?--that Verlyn asks Leslie to give to Iris, when Verlyn is unable to find a job, he finally enlists to serve in the Vietnam war.
Such interconnectedness is also accentuated by the porous boundaries and multiple perspectives among the novel's many characters. For example, the smell of photo-developing chemicals in Uncle Leslie's shop, which mixes with smells from the fish shop next to his studio, is associated with the fishy smell in Minnie Fairchild's kitchen when Verlyn tries to disclose his guilt for having killed Little Red. This same fish smell evokes the reader's memory of the fisherman who, in the novel's opening scene, discovers Little Red's body floating in the river. Such fluidity, in turn, reminds readers of the multiple boilings--the lobster-red body of Little Red, for example--that link various characters, major and minor. Through associations of sight and smell, as well as the fluid movement from one perspectives to another, the novel conveys its vision of democratic interconnectedness. The use of multiple perspectives is, of course, not new. As John Berger points out, photography shattered the illusion of a single perspective, a fact recognized in the nineteenth century by novelists, painters, and photographers. Once this illusion was shattered, artists, including photographers, began to experiment with a variety of forms, some of which accentuated multiple perspectives. As Alan tells Iris, "As early as the 1860s photographers were doing things like this: collage, double- and over-exposure, duplication, bizarre things with light" (344). What Alan would not suggest, of course, is that these experiments might have sociopolitical implications.
Although subordinate to the collage design in Because It Is Bitter, multiple doubles, or twinnings, are also employed to advance the novel's theme: the kinship of all human beings, regardless of their social locations. For example, when Iris looks at a photographic negative clipped to a wire in her uncle's shop, she recognizes that "they have luridly black faces and arms ... meaning they are white people" (57). Like this negative, Iris and Jinx might be considered "secret sharers"--white and black, female and male--even though no ceremony of marriage is possible for them in a racist society. As a result of social inequities, neither finds fulfillment: Iris marries, not for love but to achieve security, and Jinx dies in Vietnam. A shrewd survivor, Iris recognizes that the Savages need her even though she is clearly not from a "good" family: for Mrs. Savage, Iris fills the place vacated by a biological daughter; for Mr. Savage, Iris offers a means of "saving" son Alan from the life of a homosexual; and for Alan himself, Iris provides an opportunity for him to hide desires that, if made public in a homophobic society, would have meant the loss of both family and social position. We see, moreover, through the novel's technique of deep focus, that Jinx's tragic life is replicated in that of other young black men, such as Sugar Baby and Bo Bo Ritchie. It is through such multiple doublings that the novel disrupts the aesthetic practice of focusing on a central heroic individual, tragic or comic, to democratize such suffering. Jinx Fairchild is a noble young man whose death, like that of the "King of Camelot," is no less tragic because it can be reproduced, again and again, in a violent and unjust world.
Double Exposures in The Barrens
Like many other feminist crime writers, Oates/Smith does not simply write psychological thrillers; she parodies them. A parody is, of course, already a kind of double, but it is only one of many types of doubles--including the photographic--that Oates employs in the Rosamond Smith novels to undermine the myth of the isolated self. Where the conventional thriller, according to Jerry Palmer, resolves the contradiction between the individual and society in favor of the isolated and competitive individual, the "feminist socialist" thriller, according to Sally R. Munt, turns this formula inside-out. Oates is not, of course, the first to recognize the feminist possibilities of the crime novel, particularly the psychological thriller. Women have been feminizing the thriller since the nineteenth century, as illustrated, Munt argues, in the creation of such characters as Mrs. Julia Herlock Shomes (5). Indeed, by the time Oates "cracked the code" of the psychological thriller, while writing the postmodern thriller Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984), novelists such as Valerie Miner had already created an audience for the feminist anti-thriller. According to Munt, "The myth of individualism intrinsic to crime fiction is successfully challenged" (205), so successfully, in fact, that in Munt's view, the term "anti-thriller" is more accurate than "thriller." One of the techniques that Munt describes, the use of "structured pairs" in Miner's Blood Sisters (1981), is employed with great inventiveness in all the Rosamond Smith novels. In Miner's novel, according to Munt, structured pairs emphasize "female connectedness versus individuation" (62); however, in The Barrens--as in all the Rosamond Smith novels-structured pairs emphasize not only female connectedness but also our societal connectedness or interdependence regardless of gender.
More specifically, Oates/Smith uses structured pairs to argue for the common humanity of "us" and "them," including even those "monsters" among us who kill. In The Barrens, such structured pairs include "trick" photographic doubles, genetic twins, the pairing of detective and killer, victimizer and victim, good and evil. While these structured pairs--to which I have given the name "doubles exposures"--are characteristic of all the Rosamond Smith novels, The Barrens is the only anti-thriller in which the protagonist, an amateur detective, is also a photographer. Furthermore, it is the only thriller in which photographic doubles function along with many other kinds of doubles to elaborate a favorite theme of Oates/Smith: not the mystery of plot, but the mystery of identity. The mystery of identity is posed, for example, by the photographic doubles displayed on a sculpture-collage created by Duana Zolle entitled A Garden of Earthly and Unearthly Delights, a title that echoes (doubles) Hieronymous Bosch's A Garden of Earthly Delights. When McBride first views Duana's sculpture-collage, he is particularly intrigued by one image: "a face like Duana Zolle's, repeated half a dozen times like other faces" (104). McBride himself leads a double life: by day he is an upper-middle-class realtor who lives in a wealthy suburb with his wife Tess and two sons; by night he becomes the photographer, Nighthawk. As Nighthawk, McBride explores the seemingly ordinary world, a world transformed by the lens of his camera "as if the eye saw only surfaces, and the camera saw both surfaces and beneath surfaces" (195).
Even McBride's pseudonym, "Nighthawk," echoes (or doubles) the title of Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks. On one of his night searches, Nighthawk snaps a photograph of lovers "not young but glamorous, kissing, laughing together" (125), which is later published in New Jersey Life with the title Nocturne. This couple is reminiscent of a man and woman seated together at night at the counter of a diner in Nighthawks. In Nighthawks, as art critic Rolf G. Renner points out, Hopper places the couple's togetherness "against the desertedness of the city and the solitariness of the third drinker" (80). No solitary man appears in Nocturne--the couple is photographed "huddled beneath the awning of a closed liquor store in Hoboken, waiting for rain to pass; the sidewalk in front of them was puddled and gleaming, light from a streetlamp fell upon their vividly illuminated faces" (125)--but perhaps the photographer himself is that solitary man. Or, he is that solitary man at least until he meets his romantic double, Ruellen, in the studio of her twin sister. By reading Duana's diary, Nighthawk discovers that the artist had admired Nocturne after seeing it reproduced in New Jersey Life.
Doubles proliferate in the novel: the novel itself is double, both an anti-thriller and a romance. Its mysteries are also at least double: along with the mystery of identity (rather than plot), The Barrens explores the mystery of desire. The novel's epigraph from Nietzsche suggests this theme: "Ultimately one loves one's desire, not the desired object." To understand the doubles in The Barrens--biological, photographic, intertextual--it is best to analyze them in relationship to each other and to the text as a whole. For example, the image of the double organizes many aspects of the text, including its upper- and lower-level segments, as well as its double perspective. At the upper-level, The Barrens is divided into sections--"The Haunting," "The Hunt," and "The Reckoning"--all of which apply to the plot of the photographer-detective, Matthias McBride, and to sculptor-serial killer, Joseph Gavin, whom McBride pursues. The point of view is also double: while in a conventional thriller the point of view is consistently limited to that of the detective-hero, as both Palmer and Munt emphasize (65; 24), in The Barrens the point of view shifts, chapter by chapter, from Nighthawk to Gavin, creating a kind of double exposure for readers. Both men are also haunted by childhoods in Forked River, including memories of a high school classmate named Marcey Mason, who was a beautiful and talented singer. Both are hunters as well: Nighthawk hunts for a serial killer who is, in turn, a hunter of women. McBride begins hunting for Duana's murderer because, according to detectives, he is described in her diary as her lover, and Gavin hunts Duana to make her the sixth "bride" in his sculpture, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." Finally, in "The Reckoning," both men face a reckoning for their deeds. To undercut this doubling of plot and character, however, and to accentuate their differences, Gavin dies by setting himself on fire whereas McBride survives to begin a new life in the novel's fourth and final section, "The Epilogue: Life After Death."
By constructing detective and killer as doubles, Oates/Smith exposes, or makes explicit, that the photographer succeeds in his hunt for NAME UNKOWN because he understands a man who is, in some respects, like himself. At first McBride tries to deny this knowledge, primarily to protect his marriage and his high-paying job in Sid Krell's real estate brokerage firm. When Tess McBride suspects Nighthawk of infidelity, he feels little guilt toward his wife. Instead, he feels guilt for having failed to answer Duana's desire with his own. Thus, McBride feels guilty when the professional detectives investigating the crime insist, during their questioning of him, that most people "know more than they think they know" (27), a phrase that is repeated in later chapters (51), as Nighthawk attempts to deny both his guilt and his desire. Gradually, however, the truth-seeking photographer Nighthawk swallows up the daytime disguise of McBride-realtor, husband, and father-as he hunts for Duana Zolle's killer, Joseph Gavin/NAME UNKNOWN. In the process of this hunt, also a descent into his working-class past, Nighthawk learns as much about himself as about Gavin, and he also begins his romantic quest for Duana's twin sister, Ruellen Zolle.
The plots or quests of McBride and Gavin reveal many dimensions of their doubleness. Through these multiple pairings--of the hunter and hunted, the "good" amateur detective and the "bad" killer, the good artist and the "failed" artist, or the genetic twins--The Barrens exposes our shared humanity, our kinship with the violent among us. For example, both McBride and Gavin use pseudonyms as artists: McBride signs his photographs "Nighthawk" while Gavin signs his sculptures "NAME UNKNOWN." In addition, both men were born into working class families; both provide anonymous tips to police about the murderer's identity; and both are, at different times, intruders in Duana's studio. Here the similarities end, however, for Gavin abducts and kills Duana in her studio whereas when McBride enters Duana's studio, he encounters her twin, Ruellen. As these double exposures imply, the serial killer's desire turns murderous, having been twisted by jealousy and hatred. Yet the novel also emphasizes that jealousy is a widely shared human emotion. For example, McBride admits that he "might have been perplexed by Duana Zolle, and in awe of her greater talent and imagination. He might have been jealous of her. Possessive" (152). Ruellen also confesses that she has always been jealous of her more gifted twin sister. She tells Matt, "I loved my mysterious, talented sister. I was proud of her. It was my twin I hated" (270). As a teenager Ruellen had begun to hate Duana whose artistic talent she recognized as greater than her own.
Intense jealousy helps to explain why Rue responded with anger to a "trick" photograph Duana had created of the twin sisters: "The image was of Duana and me as if we were the same person, a girl resting the side of her face against a mirror except there was no mirror. I was fascinated by the image--I couldn't tell at first which face was Duana's, and which was mine. Then finally I couldn't bear it. I tore every print into pieces" (270). What is so threatening to Ruellen? Oates herself suggests an answer to this question when she states in a critical essay that "doubles multiply and question the very basis of individual identity" (The Edge of Impossibility 92). Even though we must define ourselves in relation to others, in Western societies, as Jessica Benjamin argues, most models of human development emphasize the need to acquire an autonomous sense of self in adolescence (15-24). This model of autonomous selfhood may explain why it was during adolescence that Ruellen first felt deeply threatened to have a twin whose artistic talent she recognized as greater than her own. Yet, in contrast to Ruellen, Duana had been fascinated by doubles, and her art, like Oates/Smith's, is "filled with games of identity" (152).
Nighthawk is also intrigued by the play of identity in the photographs that he sees in Duana's sculpture, A Garden of Earthly and Unearthly Delights. Nighthawk only begins to understand aspects of such play after he learns, following Duana's disappearance, that she has an "identical" twin named Ruellen. According to Oriana, Ruellen "isn't much like Duana; at least I couldn't see more than a superficial resemblance. She isn't at all religious, for one thing, and Duana was very religious" (141). In physical appearance, however, the twins are more difficult to differentiate. For example, when Oriana shows Matt a photograph in which Duana appears to be "leaning her left temple against a mirror so that her shadowed face was reflected, not quite symmetrically, in the mirror," he realizes, after Oriana asks him if he sees "something strange," that there is, in fact, no mirror in the photograph. He then assumes, mistakenly, that Duana had "photographed herself at two separate times, using a stop-time lens," but Oriana explains that "the faces don't 'exactly match' because even identical twins aren't 'identical'" (151). Oriana then relates that, when she asked which of these faces was hers, Duana "laughed at me saying, 'Why should it matter? A face is only a face. Skin is skin. Rue and I are nothing alike--or everything alike. A twin is an imaginary construct'" (152).
Why does Oates/Smith ask readers to contemplate "imaginary constructs," such as photographic doubles or genetic twins? The question is especially troubling when the doubles seem to be extreme opposites, as, for example, when a killer such as Gavin is paired with a lover of women, such as McBride. The novel addresses this question in its portrayal of Hugo L. Chauncey. Matt seeks the help of Chauncey, another insomniac whom he meets on the Internet, because of his knowledge of serial killers. When this "wheelchair-bound" young man describes the murder of Marcey Mason as a kind of "art" because the body is "positioned in a place near a nature trail where she'd eventually be found, like an artwork" (243), Matt is astonished: "A serial killer is an--artist?" To Hugo, the killer is the kind of artist "whose raw material is other people, obviously. Their bodies, their flesh, blood--whatever. But also their souls" (244). Matt is "infuriated" by this notion of art (as some readers may be); however, because he wants Chauncey to continue helping him, he offers a definition broad enough to include the distorted offerings of a serial killer: "Whatever isn't primarily for use. That's a minimal working definition of art" (244). As Hugo continues to hunt for patterns in unsolved murders--women strangled with wire, body parts removed--he locates the case of a beautiful newscaster and says aloud, "Wonder what part of this one our guy 'removed.' The whole face, maybe! You could peel it right off, it'd serve the bitch right" (251). Knowing that Hugo shares the serial killer's hatred of women, Matt suddenly feels "an almost overwhelming urge to shove the young man out of his wheelchair" (254). Instead, he argues against the notion that the psychopath is "a failed artist," but Hugo insists, "No! He loves them, in his secret way. Don't you get it, Mathias? He adores them. He wants to devour them. He wants to be them. It's the highest form of love" (255).
McBride's conversation with Hugo Chauncey exposes the misogyny of the killer and, at the same time, exposes the faulty assumption that the killer's behavior is a form of individual pathology. Since hatred of women is widely shared not only by serial killers, but also, to varying degrees, by "ordinary" men such as Hugo Chauncy and Sid Krell, it is far too common to be considered a psychological aberration. In contrast to the conventional thriller, The Barrens demonstrates that misogyny is not an individual pathology but an extreme manifestation of a socially constructed masculinity--a social pathology, one might term it--symptomatic of a highly individualistic, competitive, capitalist society. That is, Joseph Gavin's twisted expression of "love" is shared not only by other serial killers but also by men like Sid Krell who, in his own way, attempts to own or devour women. For example, when Duana Zolle refuses to be "bought" by Krell, he takes revenge by sending her an expensive work of art, its glass shattered, an act of violence indicating his contempt for both the artist and her art. Like Krell, who is also described as having a "shadow self," Gavin wishes to devour--to possess--the material world, including the bodies of the talented women whom he envies. The self-deceived NAME UNKNOWN believes that he detests the "worship of material things" (116), but he is a collector of women whose body parts he uses in his "Marriage of Heaven and Hell."
Heaven/hell, good/evil, lover/killer--all are pairs, or doubles, presumed to be hierarchical opposites; however, Oates/Smith complicates these hierarchies in The Barrens. For example, as structural doubles, McBride and Gavin satirize the upper-class "heaven" of Weymouth, a community of devourers who feed off the working-class. Likewise, according to Stewart Crehan, Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell" satirizes Swedenborg's notion of an upper-class "heaven." Because Blake's sympathies were with the poor, Crehan explains, he reversed the Swedenborgian terms for heaven and hell in his "Marriage" (83-90). Oates/ Smith also questions these terms in The Barrens. For example, as Nighthawk stalks the serial killer, he begins a descent from the supposed heaven of an upper middle-class life into the hell of lower-class life. Ironically, however, Nighthawk's descent from the barrens--that is, from his life as a highly paid realtor to that of a poorly paid photographer journalist--is liberating. In his final encounter with Gavin, the amateur detective Nighthawk is severely burned, but he survives. In the Epilogue, "Life After Death," we learn that he has left his unfulfilling marriage to begin a romantic relationship with Ruellen. This conclusion, as well as McBride's resistance to misogyny, marks The Barrens's departure from the thriller's conventions of characterization and closure.
Nighthawk is, of course, not a conventionally good man, for he has left his family to pursue Ruellen. This is, however, but one example of how Oates/ Smith complicates notions of good and evil in The Barrens. Another example is that, as a child, McBride is called "Little Satan" (187, 189) by his own mother, while Gavin imagines himself an "angel of wrath" (201) who kills "bad" women. Yet Gavin is jealous of Duana's talent and, to protect his own ego, he imagines she has stolen ideas from his "Marriage of Heaven and Hell" for use in her "Garden of Earthly and Unearthly Delights." Yet, as stated above, Matt also acknowledges the possibility of his being jealous of Duana. In short, Gavin is no angel, just as McBride is no Satan; instead, The Barrens calls into question conventional notions of good and evil. It is apparent, for example, that what the religious Mrs. McBride had named evil was, in fact, the creative energy that would fuel her son's passion for photography. While Nighthawk may be imperfect, he is, of course, a lover, not a killer, an artist, not a destroyer. As Nighthawk says: "I can steal, I'm a master thief. I can plunder other lives. But I'm a lover too. That was the power Nighthawk wielded, Nighthawk's beautiful camera in his hands that never shook as Matt McBride's hands might shake" (112). The hero of The Barrens, like Blake's "Marriage of Heaven and Hell," is the producer-artist Nighthawk, not the consumer-realtor McBride.
What is it that devourer-consumers such as Krell or Gavin seek from producer-artists such as Duana Zolle or Nighthawk? One answer is that, because devourers are barren, lacking in creativity, they attempt to consume not only works of art but also the artists who produce them. This notion is also suggested in the novel's title, which refers both to a place--Pine Barrens, where NAME UNKNOWN plants the bodies of his sacrificial victims--and, more generally, to human concepts--or representations--of the "natural." Even though, according to Stewart Crehan, Blake reversed Rousseau's maxim, "Where nature is not, man is barren," to emphasize man's creativity--"Where man is not, nature is barren" (qtd. in Crehan 99)--this reversal does not alter "woman's" conflation with nature. Ironically, Gavin's sacrifices of female bodies at Pine Barrens underscores the power--and the sacredness--of women's creative powers, not all of which, like the uterus, can be equated with "natural" creativity. When Gavin harvests women's body parts for use in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"--the vocal chords of the singer, the leg tendons of the dancer, the eyes of the sculptor--the novel makes the feminist point that a woman's creativity is not necessarily lodged in her uterus. Gavin makes one exception when he cuts out the uterus of an African American Olympic runner in a racist denial of her talent as a runner.
In a society based on competitive individualism, such hatred and violence are symptomatic of a social rather than an individual pathology. While this pathology is far more extreme in Gavin, such violence cannot be halted unless it is understood as rooted in society's generally unexamined beliefs. To counter the violence engendered by the myth of the isolated self, Oates/Smith reminds readers of their interconnectedness through the repetition of an image as she does in Because It Is Bitter. In The Barrens, this recurring image is a web or a net. It first appears in the form of a white shawl that later figures in the investigation of Duana's abduction and murder. In her diary, Duana describes finding this shawl, which she mistakenly assumes is a gift from Nighthawk, outside her door. She writes, "I hope it's not Medea's 'radiant garment'" (129), but in fact this shawl, placed at her door by Gavin, snags her in his net of deceit and violence. When McBride reads in Duana's diary following her abduction--"The net flung over me, & over you. / The long summer following. Your blindness / Hiding from me" (125)--he recognizes that he had been afraid of this strong-willed, talented woman. Yet in the novels of Oates or Smith, these nets or webs of connectedness, however painfully they may be experienced in a competitive society, suggest the human potential for deeper, psychic connections. Ruellen describes such a psychic connection with her twin in the final pages of The Barrens. While her sister was dying, she tells Nighthawk, she experienced "a psychic connection between us.... A kind of web. A shimmering web" (268). This shimmering web may also become visible during the experience of intense creativity. For example, Duana told Oriana that while working on her collages "very intensely, for ten, twelve hours at a time, she could break through ... the 'cobweb of self' and enter this realm of 'clear light'" (143). Duana fills her art "with games of identity," for like Oates/Smith, she thinks of social identity as "mere sangsara--a Net of Illusion" (152).
Art and The Possibility of Civic Dialogue and Social Action
While the religious right calls on Americans to "Focus on the Family," Joyce Carol Oates and Rosamond Smith continue to remind readers that we are all interconnected, calling upon us to imagine ourselves in an interdependent relationship with society as a whole. Unfortunately, photography tends to neglect such a wide-angle vision; instead, "When it comes to empowering people personally in ways that disempower them politically, there is no medium better suited than the family photograph and the family photo album" (Burlein 314). Focusing narrowly on families, as Burlein argues, "deepens popular apathy and alienation by cutting off people's connections with larger and more public communities in favor of confining their primary identifications within the private family" (314). To counter such apathy and alienation, Because It Is Bitter elicits reader sympathy by emphasizing the kinship among families regardless of their differences while The Barrens draws our attention to our shared humanity with the violent among us. This theme that we are all interconnected links Smith and Oates to the Joyce Carol Oates of the past. For more than forty years, Oates's fiction has conveyed her democratic vision along with her belief that we must acknowledge our interdependencies, not only as romantic couples or as families but also as members of society and, more broadly, creatures of the earth. To convey this conviction, Oates does not simply allude to the visual or verbal arts; she transposes them. For example, in The Barrens and Because It Is Bitter, she challenges the conventions of the novel, particularly the thriller, as well as the codes of photography and painting to urge readers to resist a narrow focus on individuals or families. Through the creative use of photographic techniques in The Barrens and Because It Is Bitter, Oates/Smith also asks readers to think more imaginatively and sympathetically about the tragic effects of undemocratic hierarchies.
Fineman argues that the myth of the isolated self obstructs our ability to understand or think constructively about our society as a whole. She claims that, because "core components of American's founding myths, such as the sacredness of individual independence, autonomy, and self-sufficiency, have been ossified, used as substitutes for analysis ... [they] eclipse rather than illuminat[e] the debate [over our collective responsibilities]" (181). Although our society needs to share caretaking responsibilities in a more equitable manner, according to Fineman, it is either relegated to the family, where it is work performed without pay; or if it is performed in the public sphere, for example by nurses or public school teachers, it is poorly paid. In short, as Fineman argues, and as illustrated in Oates's fiction, caretaking has not been recognized as a collective responsibility in the United States; more often, it is an exploited form of labor. For example, when Minnie Fairchild works as a practical nurse, her care-taking labor is exploited by her white doctor-employer who does not take care to provide her with retirement income after his death. Such exploitation is injurious not only to Minnie but also to her entire family and to the country as a whole. This is not, however, an example of racial discrimination alone, nor is it strictly a form of gender discrimination. As Oates points out, "Anyone so employed or in such a position of relative powerlessness, whether black or white, male or female, will be 'silenced' by the very fact of this powerlessness" (qtd. in Jordan 153). Why, then, should the term "welfare" be used to describe necessary subsidies to individual caretakers such as Minnie, whose low-paying jobs fail to provide any retirement income?
Such economic issues require public dialogue if social change is to occur. Fineman offers one model; the reception of Because It Is Bitter offers another. As Fineman says, President Clinton's public discussions of racial problems in the United States, while not an entirely successful model, was at least a beginning. The interracial dialogues prompted by Because It Is Bitter suggest another, albeit more limited, model for such dialogues about our collective problems. In addition to Gates's review in The Nation, interracial dialogues appeared in Broken Silences (Jordan, ed.), in numerous reviews, and in many literature classrooms. In Broken Silences, African American novelist Marita Golden explains that she admires Oates because "she skews the mythology of the American dream.... [that is,] she takes the typical, suburban, white milieu and shows how crazy people are and shows it brilliantly" (qtd. in Jordan 92). Of course, it is not only racism that creates such a loss of completeness, but also economic injustices. When Oates predicts that "economic factors are likely to undermine the women's movement overall" (qtd. in Jordan 152), she implies that the growing gap between rich and poor will impede our ability to address inequities based on race or gender. She is likely, then, to agree with Ellen M. Wood's statement: "A truly democratic society can celebrate diversities of life styles, culture, or sexual preference, but in what way would it be 'democratic' to celebrate class differences?" (258). Class differences are certainly not likely to be celebrated, nor is it likely, given current tax policies, that ours will become a "kinder and gentler" nation. Nevertheless, when Jordan asks Oates, "What can black and white women writers teach each other about writing and living?" she answers, "Sympathy--sympathy--sympathy" (152). As Oates and Smith remind us, if we wish to create a more humane and just society, we need to sympathize with others despite the chasms that divide us. Moving beyond sympathy to action, we must analyze and transform aesthetic and socioeconomic hierarchies that not only divide us but also threaten the survival of our democracy.
IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY
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(1) Oates argued in "The Myth of the Isolated Self" (1973) that belief in a unified and autonomous self is "totally erroneous" and dangerous, for "as long as the myth of separate and competitive 'selves' endures," she explains, "we will have a society obsessed with adolescent ideas of being superior, of conquering, of destroying. The pronoun 'I' is as much a metaphor as 'schizophrenia'" (75). Psychologist David Bakan claims that agentic and communal consciousnesses have been split off from each other in Western culture, with increasingly dangerous consequences for human survival (14).
(2) As Kristeva explains, Bakhtin's "discovery of intertextuality at a formal level leads us to an intrapsychic or psychoanalytic finding, if you will, concerning the status of the 'creator,' the one who produces a text by placing himself or herself at the intersection of this plurality of texts on their very different levels" (Waller 280-81). For example, the title of Oates's A Garden of Earthy Delights (1967) announces its intertextual relationship with Hieronymous Bosch's triptych, A Garden of Delights, an intertext that appears in both Because It Is Bitter and The Barrens. Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, an intertext in The Barrens, appears frequently in Oates's earlier fiction and criticism. For example, Blake's "Without contraries is no progression" from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is echoed in the title of Oates's collection of critical essays, Contraries (1981). In addition, epigraphs from Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil preface Oates's first novel, With Shuddering Fall--"What is done out of love takes place beyond good and evil"--as well as The Barrens: "Ultimately one loves one's desire, not the desired object." As a young man, Nighthawk agrees that "Ultimately one loves one's desire, not the desired object," for it was "the ache of desire he'd wanted" (215), but once united with Ruellen, he wonders, "Was this true? Invariably true?" (290).
(3) In Lavish Self-Divisions, I argue that Oates divides herself up into all her characters. I am extending that argument in this paper.
(4) In (Woman) Writer, Oates gives numerous examples of writers who have created pseudonyms. Motives for creating authorial doubles differ, as Oates points out; for example, Doris Lessing created "Jane Somers" to "test the integrity of the publishing industries of England and the United States" (389).
(5) In a Note prefacing The Poisoned Kiss, Oates writes, "The tales in this collection are translated from an imaginary work Azulejos, by an imaginary author, Fernandes de Briao. To the best of my knowledge he has no existence and has never existed, though without his very real guidance I would not have had access to the mystical 'Portugal' of the stories--nor would I have been compelled to recognize the authority of a world--view quite antithetical to my own" (9).
(6) Oates's fascination with twins or doubles is evident in all the Rosamond Smith novels: Lives of the Twins (1987), Soul/Mate (1989), Nemesis (1990), Snake Eyes (1992), You Can't Catch Me (1995), Double Delight (1997), Starr Bright Will Be With You Soon (1999), and The Barrens (2001). In the first of these novels, for example, James, himself a twin, explains that each tortoise shell cat "contains double genes" and each "is twins" (65). He continues, "When the mother cat's egg is fertilized in the womb twin fetuses form but for some reason--ah, what pranks Nature plays!--the fetuses merge into a single organism within a few weeks: a single cat. But this cat will have the genetic material of both original twins" (65). Molly, his psychiatric patient and the novel's protagonist, is deeply upset by this news.
(7) Bakhtin explains that a "side-long glance" indicates the novelist's awareness of and anticipation of readers and the contexts of reception (280).
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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