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Posted March 23, 2012
In the beginning of this novel, we witness raw ideas and sensations that can only exist before our experiences shape and define them. Here begins the story of Marya, sent to live with her aunt and uncle along with her siblings. She is wild, close to feral, and yet, somehow flourishes through will alone at time to become a distinguished writer and scholar. The few details I know of Oates’ life seem to resonate with this story, and I’d like to think there is a little more of her in the novel than what she usually invests.
There are so many tropes abound that usually end in cliché (sexual awakening, the freedom of college, professor crushes, sorority girl takes on project, etc.) that for a second you roll your eyes…until you remember you are reading Oates, and that there will always be something around the corner, whether it be a stark, honest portrayal, or a shocking development, still somehow more believable than expected. She can turn innocuous into horrific on a dime. She can take characters and, without changing them, have them perceived as good, evil, heroic, or the subject of derision.
Joyce also writes with her amazing metaphors and intriguing dialogue. She can write a stunning micro-clause, like Michael Cunningham. She can find (with her impeccable research, or, perhaps knowledge) the perfect quote or metaphor that matches the forte, profession, or life experience of the character. I still don’t know how she can get into the skull of academic and bumpkin alike. I’d like to think I can say she captures impeccably “the world of the play”, something I learned way back in drama class.
The novel also seems clearer in its structure. Not to say that her writing isn’t always clear, it is, but, many of her books I’ve read recently seem mutable and ever-changing. Here is a life, laid-out in its most powerful moments, logically, like “reality” which is yet another angle of Oates’ “prodigious output” And when that life comes full circle, we wonder about the power of false hope, and think that if we hadn’t gone so far away, it might have been easier to confront our deepest fears. I only wish that this biography of sorts would have resonated with more meaning for me. Still, I am such a fan of Oates’ work, and am not disappointed in the slightest.