Expensive People

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Overview

Joyce Carol Oates’s Wonderland Quartet comprises four remarkable novels that explore social class in America and the inner lives of young Americans. In Expensive People, Oates takes a provocative and suspenseful look at the roiling secrets of America’s affluent suburbs. Set in the late 1960s, this first-person confession is narrated by Richard Everett, a precocious and obese boy who sees himself as a minor character in the alarming drama ...
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Expensive People (Modern Library Paperbacks Series)

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Overview

Joyce Carol Oates’s Wonderland Quartet comprises four remarkable novels that explore social class in America and the inner lives of young Americans. In Expensive People, Oates takes a provocative and suspenseful look at the roiling secrets of America’s affluent suburbs. Set in the late 1960s, this first-person confession is narrated by Richard Everett, a precocious and obese boy who sees himself as a minor character in the alarming drama unfolding around him.

Fascinated by yet alienated from his attractive, self-absorbed parents and the privileged world they inhabit, Richard incisively analyzes his own mismanaged childhood, his pretentious private schooling, his “successful-executive” father, and his elusive mother. In an act of defiance and desperation, eleven-year-old Richard strikes out in a way that presages the violence of ever-younger Americans in the turbulent decades to come.

A National Book Award finalist, Expensive People is a stunning combination of social satire and gothic horror. “You cannot put this novel away after you have opened it,” said The Detroit News. “This is that kind of book–hypnotic, fascinating, and electrifying.”

Expensive People is the second novel in the Wonderland Quartet. The books that complete this acclaimed series, A Garden of Earthly Delights, them, and Wonderland, are also available from the Modern Library.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780865380691
  • Publisher: Ontario Review Books
  • Publication date: 6/1/1990
  • Series: Wonderland Quartet Series , #2
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 243
  • Product dimensions: 5.47 (w) x 8.24 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University. The bestselling author of the novels We Were the Mulvaneys and Blonde, she has written numerous works of fiction as well as poetry, essays, criticism, and plays.

Biography

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most influential and important storytellers in the literary world. She has often used her supreme narrative skills to examine the dark side of middle-class Americana, and her oeuvre includes some of the finest examples of modern essays, plays, criticism, and fiction from a vast array of genres. She is still publishing with a speed and consistency of quality nearly unheard of in contemporary literature.

A born storyteller, Oates has been spinning yarns since she was a little girl too young to even write. Instead, she would communicate her stories through drawings and paintings. When she received her very first typewriter at the age of 14, her creative floodgates opened with a torrent. She says she wrote "novel after novel" throughout high school and college -- a prolificacy that has continued unabated throughout a professional career that began in 1963 with her first short story collection, By the North Gate.

Oates's breakthrough occurred in 1969 with the publication of them, a National Book Award winner that established her as a force to be reckoned with. Since that auspicious beginning, she has been nominated for nearly every major literary honor -- from the PEN/Faulkner Award to the Pulitzer Prize -- and her fiction turns up with regularity on The New York Times annual list of Notable Books.

On average Oates publishes at least one novel, essay anthology, or story collection a year (during the 1970s, she produced at the astonishing rate of two or three books a year!). And although her fiction often exposes the darker side of America's brightest facades – familial unrest, sexual violence, the death of innocence – she has also made successful forays into Gothic novels, suspense, fantasy, and children's literature. As novelist John Barth once remarked, "Joyce Carol Oates writes all over the aesthetical map."

Where she finds the time for it no one knows, but Oates manages to combine her ambitious, prolific writing career with teaching: first at the University of Windsor in Canada, then (from 1978 on), at Princeton University in New Jersey. For all her success and fame, her daily routine of teaching and writing has changed very little, and her commitment to literature as a transcendent human activity remains steadfast.

Good To Know

When not writing, Oates likes to take in a fight. "Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost," she says in highbrow fashion of the lowbrow sport.

Oates's Black Water, which is a thinly veiled account of Ted Kennedy's car crash in Chappaquiddick, was produced as an opera in the 1990s.

In 2001, Oprah Winfrey selected Oates's novel We Were the Mulvaneys for her Book Club.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Rosamond Smith
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 16, 1938
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lockport, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Syracuse University, 1960; M.A., University of Wisconsin, 1961

Read an Excerpt

Part I

1

I was a child murderer.

I don’t mean child-murderer, though that’s an idea. I mean child murderer, that is, a murderer who happens to be a child, or a child who happens to be a murderer. You can take your choice. When Aristotle notes that man is a rational animal one strains forward, cupping his ear, to hear which of those words is emphasized—rational animal, rational animal? Which am I? Child murderer, child murderer? It took me years to start writing this memoir, but now that I’m started, now that those ugly words are typed out, I could keep on typing forever. A kind of quiet, blubbering hysteria has set in. You would be surprised, normal as you are, to learn how many years, how many months, and how many awful minutes it has taken me just to type that first line, which you read in less than a second: I was a child murderer.

You think it’s easy?

Let me explain the second line. Child-murderer is an “idea.” I am writing this memoir in a rented room, ignoble enough and smelling of garbage, and outside in the street children are playing. Normal, like you and everyone who chances upon these sweaty words of mine, the children are making noise. Normal people always make noise. So it crosses my desperate, corrupt, cobwebbed mind, my flabby, cringing mind, that those noises could be silenced in the way I once silenced someone else. Already you are struggling and tugging with your distaste, eh? You’re tempted to glance at the back of this book to see if the last chapter is a prison scene and a priest visits me and I either stoically refuse him or embrace his knees manfully. Yes, you are thinkingof doing that. So I might as well tell you that my memoir will not end in any such convenient way; it isn’t well-rounded or hemmed in by fate in the shape of novelistic architecture. It certainly isn’t well-planned. It has no conclusion but just dribbles off, in much the same way it begins. This is life. My memoir is not a confession and it is not fiction to make money; it is simply . . . I am not sure what it is. Until I write it all out I won’t even know what I think about it.

Look at my hands tremble! I am not well. I weigh two hundred and fifty pounds and I am not well, and if I told you how old I am you would turn away with a look of revulsion. How old am I? Did I stop growing on that day when “it” happened, note the shrewd passivity of that phrase, as if I hadn’t made “it” happen myself, or did I maybe freeze into what I was, and outside of that shell layers and layers of fat began to form? Writing this is such hard work that I have to stop and wipe myself with a large handkerchief. I sweat all over. And those children outside my window! I think they are unkillable anyway. Life keeps on, getting noisier and noisier as I get quieter and quieter, and all these normal, noisy, healthy people around me keep pressing in, mouths full of laughing teeth and biceps charmingly bulging. At the second in which the slick lining of my stomach finally bursts, some creature next door will turn her radio from Bill Sharpe’s “Weather Round-Up” to Guy Prince’s “Top-Ten Jamboree.”

This memoir is a hatchet to slash through my own heavy flesh and through the flesh of anyone else who happens to get in the way.

One thing I want to do, my readers, is to minimize the tension between writer and reader. Yes, there is tension. You think I am trying to put something over on you, but that isn’t true. It isn’t true. I am honest and dogged and eventually the truth will be told; it will just take time because I want to make sure everything gets in. I realize my sentences are slack and flabby and composed of too many small words—I’ll see if I can’t fix that. And you are impatient because I can’t seem to get started telling this story in any normal way (I don’t mean to be ironic so much, irony is an unpleasant character trait), and you would like to know, whimsically enough, whether I am in a mental institution now or crazy in some less official setting, whether I am repentant (a tongueless monk, maybe), whether much gore will be splattered throughout these pages, many violent encounters between male and female, and whether after these extravaganzas I am justly punished. Just punishment after illicit extravaganzas is usually served up for the benefit of the reader, who feels better. But, you see, this is not fiction. This is life. My problem is that I don’t know what I am doing. I lived all this mess but I don’t know what it is. I don’t even know what I mean by “it.” I have a story to tell, yes, and no one else could tell it but me, but if I tell it now and not next year it will come out one way, and if I could have forced my fat, heaving body to begin this a year ago it would have been a different story then. And it’s possible that I’m lying without knowing it. Or telling the truth in some weird, symbolic way without knowing it, so only a few psychoanalytic literary critics (there are no more than three thousand) will have access to the truth, what “it” is.

So there is tension, all right, because I couldn’t begin the story by stating: One morning in January a yellow Cadillac pulled up to a curb. And I couldn’t begin the story by stating: He was an only child. (Both these statements are quite sensible, by the way, though I could never talk about myself in the third person.)

And I couldn’t begin the story by stating: Elwood Everett met and wed Natashya Romanov when he was thirty-two and she was nineteen. (Those are my parents! It took me some time to type out their names.)

And I couldn’t begin the story with this pathetic flourish: The closet door opened suddenly and there he stood, naked. He stared in at me and I stared out at him. (And that also will come to pass, though I hadn’t intended to mention it so soon.)

All these devices are fine and I offer them to any amateur writer who wants them, but for me they don’t work because . . . I’m not sure why. It must be because the story I have to tell is my life, synonymous with my life, and no life begins anywhere. If you have to begin your life with a sentence, better make it a brave summing up and not anything coy: I was a child murderer.

My readers, don’t fret, don’t nibble at your nails: indeed I was punished. Indeed I am being punished. My misery is proof of God’s existence—yes, I’ll offer that to you as a special bonus! It will do your souls good to read of my suffering. You’ll want to know when my crime took place, and where. And what do I look like, this fat degenerate, dripping sweat over his manuscript, and how the hell old am I anyway, and whom did I kill, and why, and what sense does it make?
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First Chapter

Expensive People


By Joyce Carol Oates

Random House

Joyce Carol Oates
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0812976541


Chapter One

Part I

1

I was a child murderer.

I don't mean child-murderer, though that's an idea. I mean child murderer, that is, a murderer who happens to be a child, or a child who happens to be a murderer. You can take your choice. When Aristotle notes that man is a rational animal one strains forward, cupping his ear, to hear which of those words is emphasized--rational animal, rational animal? Which am I? Child murderer, child murderer? It took me years to start writing this memoir, but now that I'm started, now that those ugly words are typed out, I could keep on typing forever. A kind of quiet, blubbering hysteria has set in. You would be surprised, normal as you are, to learn how many years, how many months, and how many awful minutes it has taken me just to type that first line, which you read in less than a second: I was a child murderer.

You think it's easy?

Let me explain the second line. Child-murderer is an "idea." I am writing this memoir in a rented room, ignoble enough and smelling of garbage, and outside in the street children are playing. Normal, like you and everyone who chances upon these sweaty words of mine, the children are making noise. Normal people always make noise. So it crosses my desperate, corrupt, cobwebbed mind, my flabby, cringingmind, that those noises could be silenced in the way I once silenced someone else. Already you are struggling and tugging with your distaste, eh? You're tempted to glance at the back of this book to see if the last chapter is a prison scene and a priest visits me and I either stoically refuse him or embrace his knees manfully. Yes, you are thinking of doing that. So I might as well tell you that my memoir will not end in any such convenient way; it isn't well-rounded or hemmed in by fate in the shape of novelistic architecture. It certainly isn't well-planned. It has no conclusion but just dribbles off, in much the same way it begins. This is life. My memoir is not a confession and it is not fiction to make money; it is simply . . . I am not sure what it is. Until I write it all out I won't even know what I think about it.

Look at my hands tremble! I am not well. I weigh two hundred and fifty pounds and I am not well, and if I told you how old I am you would turn away with a look of revulsion. How old am I? Did I stop growing on that day when "it" happened, note the shrewd passivity of that phrase, as if I hadn't made "it" happen myself, or did I maybe freeze into what I was, and outside of that shell layers and layers of fat began to form? Writing this is such hard work that I have to stop and wipe myself with a large handkerchief. I sweat all over. And those children outside my window! I think they are unkillable anyway. Life keeps on, getting noisier and noisier as I get quieter and quieter, and all these normal, noisy, healthy people around me keep pressing in, mouths full of laughing teeth and biceps charmingly bulging. At the second in which the slick lining of my stomach finally bursts, some creature next door will turn her radio from Bill Sharpe's "Weather Round-Up" to Guy Prince's "Top-Ten Jamboree."

This memoir is a hatchet to slash through my own heavy flesh and through the flesh of anyone else who happens to get in the way.

One thing I want to do, my readers, is to minimize the tension between writer and reader. Yes, there is tension. You think I am trying to put something over on you, but that isn't true. It isn't true. I am honest and dogged and eventually the truth will be told; it will just take time because I want to make sure everything gets in. I realize my sentences are slack and flabby and composed of too many small words--I'll see if I can't fix that. And you are impatient because I can't seem to get started telling this story in any normal way (I don't mean to be ironic so much, irony is an unpleasant character trait), and you would like to know, whimsically enough, whether I am in a mental institution now or crazy in some less official setting, whether I am repentant (a tongueless monk, maybe), whether much gore will be splattered throughout these pages, many violent encounters between male and female, and whether after these extravaganzas I am justly punished. Just punishment after illicit extravaganzas is usually served up for the benefit of the reader, who feels better. But, you see, this is not fiction. This is life. My problem is that I don't know what I am doing. I lived all this mess but I don't know what it is. I don't even know what I mean by "it." I have a story to tell, yes, and no one else could tell it but me, but if I tell it now and not next year it will come out one way, and if I could have forced my fat, heaving body to begin this a year ago it would have been a different story then. And it's possible that I'm lying without knowing it. Or telling the truth in some weird, symbolic way without knowing it, so only a few psychoanalytic literary critics (there are no more than three thousand) will have access to the truth, what "it" is.

So there is tension, all right, because I couldn't begin the story by stating: One morning in January a yellow Cadillac pulled up to a curb. And I couldn't begin the story by stating: He was an only child. (Both these statements are quite sensible, by the way, though I could never talk about myself in the third person.)

And I couldn't begin the story by stating: Elwood Everett met and wed Natashya Romanov when he was thirty-two and she was nineteen. (Those are my parents! It took me some time to type out their names.)

And I couldn't begin the story with this pathetic flourish: The closet door opened suddenly and there he stood, naked. He stared in at me and I stared out at him. (And that also will come to pass, though I hadn't intended to mention it so soon.)

All these devices are fine and I offer them to any amateur writer who wants them, but for me they don't work because . . . I'm not sure why. It must be because the story I have to tell is my life, synonymous with my life, and no life begins anywhere. If you have to begin your life with a sentence, better make it a brave summing up and not anything coy: I was a child murderer.

My readers, don't fret, don't nibble at your nails: indeed I was punished. Indeed I am being punished. My misery is proof of God's existence--yes, I'll offer that to you as a special bonus! It will do your souls good to read of my suffering. You'll want to know when my crime took place, and where. And what do I look like, this fat degenerate, dripping sweat over his manuscript, and how the hell old am I anyway, and whom did I kill, and why, and what sense does it make?


Excerpted from Expensive People by Joyce Carol Oates Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2008

    A disappointment

    The synopsis made this book seem so psychologically intriguing. Yet, it didn't do much for me. It was just a boring storyline. I read it fast in anticipation that something shocking would happen, when unfortunately, it just continued to flatline.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2003

    good book read it

    In the book Expensive People a guy named Peter Lully ends up killing a little girl. He was a child murderer. In the beginning of the book he's sitting in jail and is talking about how he killed her. When he was growing up, he was a normal kid and got into really good schools. His mother was always there for him but his father was a differnt story. His father was a drunk. He always beating Peter and saying things like he was worthless and would never amount to anything becuase he was a stupid kid. His father had no idea how smart he really was.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2003

    Expensive People

    This book is perfectly put together, horror packed, and keeps you wondering. This book is perfect for anyone looking for an intelligent book to read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted October 12, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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