“Killing the Angel in the House,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “is part of the occupation of a woman writer.” This particular epithet had come to encapsulate the Victorian stereotype of sexual frigidity, otherworldly purity, and picture-perfect domesticity which was the ego-ideal for a century of unhappy women. Joyce Carol Oates has taken Woolf’s literary dictum to the next level: her Angels are not themselves killed; they themselves kill. In her recent collection of stories, The Female of the Species – published over the last five years in such diverse publications as The Kenyon Review and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – Oates explores the evil that women do and catalogues a few of the less than fair doings of the fairer sex. The women of these stories rise to the performance of such unsavory deeds as immolating their ex-husbands, endangering their younger brothers, euthanizing their patients, and in general going for the male carotid. In “Hunger” a loving yet unfulfilled wife – the Edna Pontellier of the 21st century – succumbs first to the allure of an extramarital affair and then to the temptation of a marital assassination. In “Doll: A Romance of the Mississippi” a pimp and his stepdaughter, the latter a child prostitute with a penchant for murder, roam the riparian demesne of the mighty Mississippi like Huck and Jim. In “Angel of Mercy” Nurse Agnes snuffs out her patients with a pillow over the years, impelled to these acts of “mercy” by her own self-assigned sacred mission.
All of these “Tales of Mystery and Suspense” – as the book is subtitled – transpire in that loose confessional mode partaking at times of remembrance, reflection, and straightforward report in which Oates is a consummate master. Each story takes shape from within a field wholly suffused by the consciousness of some female protagonist, smoldering with anticipatory disclosure like it was whispered into your brain direct. Oates’ casual skill at depicting the subjective life of her characters is so developed to be almost unremarkable. She uses italics judiciously and effectively to signal the emphases and repetitions of narrative consciousness.
The book’s first story, “So Help Me God,” relates the sundering – conjugal and otherwise – of Lucretia and Luke Pitman. Pitman is a law enforcement officer who wears aviators and takes pride in his modest gun-collection; he’s an “Adirondack boy” prone to the utterance of lowbrow witticisms like, “A forty-five is not an equal opportunity employer.” Lucretia by contrast is the daughter of an affluent, worldly family who would attend “any production of any Shakespeare play within a fifty-mile radius.” Yet for Lucretia this clash of milieus is neither irrelevant nor unfortunate, but rather it supplies the dialectic of her intense attraction in the first place.
Oates crafts a fascinating study of their timebomb mésalliance from first charged instant of mutual encounter through heated breakdown to violent conclusion. Lucretia’s account practically ripples with a sexual tension which, although it never erupts into any paraphiliac incident, seems nevertheless cast from a sadomasochistic mould. When they first meet, Lucretia is still a teenager, and Pitman pretends to arrest her for not possessing a “bicycle license.” Over the course of this long, beautifully-written scene of incipient seduction and edge-playing flirtation, Oates sows the thematic seeds of a relationship thrilling to the erotics of power. Some relevant quotation:
‘…a male voice came out of nowhere – “You, girl: got a license for that bike?”….He’d had a thought that here was a little blonde princess needed a shaking-up for once….He’s six foot two or three, a hard-muscled youngish man in a uniform made of silvery-blue material and I’m seeing that he’s wearing a gold-glinting badge and a leather holster and in the holster there’s a gun, and a roaring comes up in my ears like I’m going to faint….Pitman takes my arms that are covered in goose pimples from fear of him, gently draws them behind my back, and slips on the cuffs and snaps them shut….Three years, two months, and eleven days after the handcuffs, Pitman and I were married.’
You get the picture.
Lucretia refers to Pitman’s style of affectionate bullying as “Pitman-teasing.” As their marriage progresses, the nature of Pitman-teasing escalates and escalates. Soon Lucretia – now hassled daily by prurient phone calls which she suspects Pitman to be behind – takes a decisive step toward her own liberation.
In the shocking “Madison at Guignol” – the title riffs on the mythical intersection of Madison Avenue shopping with Grand Guignol theatrics – Oates weaves a tale which dwells at the fictive intersection of realistic with fantastic, mundane with macabre, and boudoir with abattoir. The story describes a day in the life of “Mrs. G,” a neurasthenic society matron desperate to retain that last patina of attractiveness in the face of time the all-destroying, all-wrinkling. In this very lonely, very pitiable, and very paranoid figure, Oates has created a compelling literary portrait of the spendthrift pathology: according to Georg Simmel, a spendthrift is someone who relishes the spending more than the getting, someone who derives pleasure not from the use-enjoyment of a good but from the seeming invincibility and overwhelming power afforded in the moment of its purchase. Mrs. G’s interminable, frustrated quest for the “perfect” article of clothing is a kind of desperate soul-searching. She flits from shop to shop, swimming in the hysterical delusions of malice and hostility which redound from all quarters. Here is some bitter, consumerist reprise of the mirror-stage:
“Staring at the oyster-beige wraith in Prada’s tinted display window, a figure that resembles Mrs. G., or is it, in fact, Mrs. G., her ghostly reflection? Posed with her head tilted to one side, an arm uncertainly raised, eyes blurred as if unfocused. A casual row of stylishly costumed mannequins with blank-moon faces, silvery blind eyes and parted lips, and, oddly, no hair. When Mrs. G. moves, nervously smoking her cigarette, the wraith moves, too, so she realizes it’s herself, and laughs.
I’m a live woman, still.”
The bulk of the story is given over to a harrowing chronicle of loneliness, anxiety, and acutely feminine despair. The last few pages, shocking in their own right, differ radically from what went before and yet nevertheless seem to consummate it in a certain sense. Let’s just say that the peripeteia will blow your mind.
The wit in these stories lies in Oates’ ability to impart a voice to those marginal denizens to whom we – we as males, normal subjects, benevolent officers of the patriarchy, whatever – do not customarily think to impute one: the collagen-and-silicone trophy-wife, the exploited child-prostitute, the frumpy, menopausal nurse. By entrusting the narrative voice to these “wretched” figures, Oates bestows upon them a new interiority and subjecthood. Unfortunately, it seems that violence is the ultimate criterion of subjecthood and deceit the ultimate manifestation of interiority. The ready-made interpretation of the course of events in the story “So Help Me God” would frame Lucretia as the poor wife who shoots her menacing hulk of a husband in a flash of justifiable self-defense. Yet Oates complicates this automatic interpretation by privileging the reader into the secret contrivance of that midnight encounter and by instating Lucretia as her own individual doing her own individual things for her own individual reasons. Likewise, in “Doll: A Romance of the Mississippi,” the child prostitute “Doll” – who is by any reasonable account a victim to an unimaginable extent – certainly does not comport herself as a victim: she controls every situation, manipulates those around her, and kills her customers at whim. What is ultimately so goddamn unheimlich about this story is neither the grotesquely Dickensian predicament in which Doll is lodged nor even the murderous behavior she unremorsefully exhibits, but rather her lighthearted insouciance, her indifference to the polar prospects of waylaid angel and natural born killer.
From Jezebel and Medea to Lady Macbeth and Hedda Gabler, feminine villainy is a well-trod topos of world literature. The usual literary-critical shtick is to educe from these episodes of poison or pistols a kind of social critique posing as fiction: playing this game, we explicate the rage of Medea with reference to the precarious political and social realities of women in the polis, and we discover in Gabler’s destructive meddling the spectacular sublimation of domestic boredom. And indeed there is ample provender for that sort of thing – if such should be the lay of one’s critical proclivities. Yet it seems more likely that Joyce Carol Oates has not published these sordid vignettes by way of suggestive critique per se, but rather because she – to paraphrase a line from D.H. Lawrence about whom Oates has written an entire book – “loves them rotten.” There is at work in these stories not only a nuanced intelligence of society, psychology, and criminality as they may involve the image and politics of femininity, but also a perverse amor fati for the inevitable perpetration of inevitable crime.
There is a vicious commonplace circulating among the litterateur riffraff of Princeton to the effect that Joyce Carol Oates is “awfully prolific.” This oblique dig seems to be founded upon the opinion that what a novel should be is the emolument of five or so years, gussied up and polished real good for the discerning eyes and longwinded meditations of literary tastemakers. Yet what violence would this scheme do to an author such as Balzac with his slapdash yet sublime books? Like Balzac, the special excellence of Oates emerges on the level of the oeuvre. The more of Joyce Carol Oates one reads, the more one appreciates what one has already read. The fact that Oates is especially prolific merely betokens the whirl of speed and life which stalks through her work. Again, like Balzac, the ultimate scope of Oates’ work is cosmic: from Mt. Ephraim and Catamount College to Grayling Island and Niagara Falls, Joyce Carol Oates is putting to paper the beating pulp heart of American Life.