At home with Joyce Carol Oates

By Murray Waldren
PRIOR to Middle Age (Fourth Estate), I hadn't read Joyce Carol Oates, despite her 40-year output of between 70 and 94 novels and non-fiction works (but who's counting?). My loss. Good judges tell me she has written some of the more enduring fiction of our time, and they cite Broke Heart Blues, We Were The Mulvaneys (an Oprah reading group selection) and Black Water as proof. They admire her range, from history through psychological realism and family chronicles to novels of female experience and (as Rosamond Smith) of suspense. And her tracts on everything from boxing to celebrity. Her take on the American psychology is purportedly dark and perceptive, her landscape an immoral America inhabited by sensitive people tormented by inner demons.

Which is why, ahead of publication, I sought out the woman considered among America's leading literary intellects. And why in 24 hours I caught two planes, a bus, a train and a taxi to reach her HQ in a privileged part of privileged Princeton, New Jersey. To get there, I'd guided my Haitian cabbie via a hand-drawn map Oates had faxed, out past the Educational Testing Service and through the nebulously annotated "countryside" to where her unpretentious house squats amid rolling lawns and redolent forest.

It's also why, amid her Frank Lloyd Wright atmosphere of museum cum cultured art haven, I began with biographical questions. My mistake because these bored her into immediate languor - I felt like an errant student failing a "discuss and elaborate" paper as she perched on a stylish sofa beside me. Oates may be waif-like and seriously thin but she has an authoritative presence. And sharpish features, which thankfully soften under a warming smile. Photographs don't do her justice. Until a year or so ago, the public Joyce was wont to hide behind Professor Oates's thick-rimmed glasses and severe haircuts; increasing celebrity seems to have raised her self-confidence - she is contact-lensed beneath draping curls when we meet, casual in jodhpurs, rollneck pullover and small-bird wariness.

At 63, she leads "a very ordered, quiet life of moderation," she says in an unhurried, girlish voice. "Nothing exotic about it, no kids - that wasn't a conscious decision, it just didn't happen - two cats. The only interruption is when deer come to drink from our birdbath". Or when she makes time to jog, play Chopin on the piano or entertain friends who drop by (she mentions, in passing, Richard Ford, Peter Singer, Peter Carey). "Mine is a contemplative life - I'm the little girl who loved books, my life is reading and writing them." Except when she's performing her twice-weekly role as the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University.

Such a life of quiet aesthetics and loud achievement could not have been predicted for the eldest child of a tool and die designer who grew up "very poor working class" on her grandparents' farm in upstate New York and whose primary school was a one-room class. "I come from a world that was rural and quite tumultuous," she says. "My ancestors were very emotional people, lots of drinking, a very primitive life style in which they worked so hard they just wore out. To me it was kind of heroic, quite mysterious and influential."

As was the violence within it: her mother's father was murdered, her father's great-grandfather suicided after narrowly failing to kill his wife. She shrugs small girl shoulders after mentioning this, flicks a wisp of hair off her face and looks meaningfully into the distance. It's a diva's pause for effect, some insight into the source of breathless drama she usually writes.

And writes and writes. Because Oates has the drive of the truly obsessed. She's always got one book on the boil, another finished but "fermenting" for a year before she reworks it for publication, another in preparation. In odd minutes between tomes she "relaxes" by dashing off 15,000-word essays, or a play, or numerous reviews for newspapers around the world, or a short story (her tally? 600 and rising). Or she anthologises, or associate edits the Ontario Review, an internationally respected literary magazine she and her husband publish biennially.

Everything is hand-written, before she types it out again. "I don't see myself as prolific in any existential way," she protests, "I write slowly, I just never waste time." She hasn't since her first novel, a story about the rehabilitation of a drug dealer written at 15. Publishers rejected it because it was too depressing; their rejection didn't depress her. Nothing has stopped her productivity, for which she should be admired, not (as the lit-crit crowd was guilty of for many years) criticised. She is, one well-known writer friend told me, "a total literary animal - she would wither and die if she wasn't continually writing".

That very largess is part of my problem with Middle Age. At nearly 500 pages it's a reasonable but obese book with a very good lean book trying to get out. Set in a wealthy community not unlike Princeton's, it opens with the mysterious Adam Berendt drowning while trying to save three children. His death hits his close friends, several women, hard. Oates explores how their lives change as a result. The work is less Gothic and fraught than most of her narratives, "a departure," she agreed, "that's more reflective of the world we live in. I wanted to redefine romance there are men and women in my novel who are not sexually involved." The real question, though, is will the reader be involved?

This one was. Mostly. The subtitle, A Romance, spells out the book's underlying irony. Which at times touches on farce. Yet the one-eyed sculptor Berendt, the catalyst for change in the novel, remains a phantom, his personality a multifaceted reflection of the prejudices and yearnings of the multitudinous other characters as they search for love and self-knowledge. He is neither convincing nor effective, and it stretches credibility to ask us to accept his alleged galvanizing effect on everyone he meets.

Nevertheless, Middle Age will be enjoyed by those who like old-fashioned love stories with happy endings. Oates is also masterful at the astute observation - one couple's "marriage persisted like a brave boat caught in an eddy a classic vehicle so pridefully crafted and maintained it would never break into pieces" - while the interior monologues of her suburban heroes can be as telling as an Updike or Bellow at their best. I just wish she didn't overwrite so much - it induces eye-glaze and obscures the odd banality from editorial eyes. Perhaps this lack of tough-love pruning owes something to Oates herself. "To write a novel," she told me, "you have to fall in love with the subject. That's why Middle Age is not satire - it's a loving tribute."

I'd like to tell you more of our conversation but our interview was abbreviated. Oates had a pressing cinema engagement, and she and her husband dropped me at Princeton station. They were off to see Apocalypse Now. I caught the train to Manhattan. It was September 10, 2001, and I was off to see Apocalypse Tomorrow.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian, 17/11/2001

Copyright 2001 Murray Waldren


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