Joyce Carol Oates: High Lonesome

The first thing one notices about Joyce Carol Oates is the sheer quantity of her output; in fact, it seems impossible to write anything about her without at least a passing reference to the huge amount of books she has published (apparently by now more than fifty novels and forty story collection, several volumes of essays and assorted other things). High Lonesome, then, although it is a fairly massive volume, probably presents only a very small selection of the first forty years of Oates’ writing (from 1966 to 2006), lumped together with eleven new stories (new at the time of publication, anyway).

I really only had a very vague idea what to expect when I ventured into this volume – I had read Mysteries of Winterthurn a long time ago as teenager and only remember that I was very confused by it but kind of liked it. It’s a bit of a mystery to me why I haven’t read anything by her since then, seeing how I read a lot of books and hence tend to like prolific authors who keep feeding my habit. A career-spanning collection of stories seemed like a good way to remedy that and to find out whether I actually liked the author or not – none of which, however really worked out as planned.

For one thing, Oates is not only known for her prolific output but also for the great variety in her work – and there is not really all that much of the latter noticeable in High Lonesome. Which, I hasten to add, is probably intentional – the collection is organized in decades, and each of the decades appears to have a thematic emphasis (violence, adultery, rape) which I (almost) certain is owed to the selection rather than giving a representative sample of the stories Oates has written in those periods. There is nothing wrong with that as it is a way of presenting the central themes of Oates’s fiction in general, but it does evoke a certain sense of samey-ness if (as I did) one reads the collection in one go. So maybe it would have been better to take things slowly and read the stories individually, with breaks between them. On the other hand, reading the collection as a whole not only made the thematic focal points obvious but also illuminated some general traits of Joyce Carol Oates’ writing which I found quite fascinating.

One thing becomes clear very quickly on reading this collection, namely that Joyce Carol Oates is not Raymond Carver and not even Ernest Hemingway – she does not subscribe to the understatement school of story writing, and she is about as far from minimalism as it is possible get: She emphatically favours grand gestures and high-strung emotions and generally does so using a copious amount of words. In fact, as I was making my way through this collection I felt the nagging suspicion creeping up on me that through all the diversity of styles and genres Joyce Carol Oates utilizes, she in fact is only ever writing in a single genre, and that genre is melodrama. By the time I had finished High Lonesome, that suspicion had grown into certainty: Everything in this collection is high melodrama, all 690 pages of it. Even those stories masquerading as realism are only wearing camouflage, scratch a bit on the surface and the psychological veneer peels away, revealing the improbable plot, the outré characterisation and the excessive emotions so typical of melodrama.

That is admittedly not exactly an orignal insight, the connection between Joyce Carol Oates’ writing and melodrama is made quite frequently and generally not in a positive way but to the contrary, as criticism. This might be valid if psychological realism is the yardstick you measure all things literary with, but the 19th century has been over for a while now and there are more ways to write a novel; and there is no a priori reason why melodrama should not be just as valid as realism to give a form to the perception of contemporary life (not even to mention all the other possible purposes of literary writing). So, instead of rejecting these stories because they are melodrama, the question would be to ask why are they melodrama and does their chosen form and genre achieve what it sets out to do?

To answer that properly would require a detailed analysis if every story in this collection, which, even if I was inclined to do it, would be beyond the scope of a humble blog post. If I did have the time and leisure to take a close look at the stories, I’d argue that what Joyce Carol Oates employs here is a very specific kind of melodrama which I would like to call hysterical – connecting back to the old, pre-Freudian, openly misogynistic concept of hysteria and arguing that what Oates attempts in these stories (and quite possibly in her writing in general) is an appropriation of that concept for feminism. Hysteria traditionally has been a cipher for a supposed emotional instability in women, who allegedly would flow off on an emotional tangent on the slightest provocation, an effervescence of feeling that would retain only a very flimsy and strained connection to what caused it. And this seems to me a very good description of the modus operandi of every single story in this collection – there is a constant sense of emotional overdrive here, of feelings being in excess of what events (as horrid as they often are) seem to warrant, a relentless tension of high-strung emotions never relaxing. Almost 700 pages if this can become exhausting, leaving the reader drained and numb, or it can – as happened to me – induce a strange of kind of dizziness, a state of trance, almost a delirium-like state. And, increasingly the more stories I read, the nagging feeling that maybe the excesses of these stories are not so excessive after all – or rather, excessive only in that by being so emphatically over the top they break through the numbness and boredom with which these days we tend to receive any news about repeated violence, continued rapes and commonplace adultery. Oates’s hysterical tone marks a hyper-sensibility, it is a seismograph whose needle reacts sensitive to even faint tremblings – and that such a finely tuned instrument is necessary to make the shock value of the violence/rape/adultery/whatever else she happens to write about felt – to make it even felt at all, is already a comment on the state of things as they are on a purely formal level.

It will hardly come as a surprise that this method is not successful in every single story in this collection, in fact quality tends to vary wildly. It works best when Joyce Carol Oates either lets go and gives in to excess, where form and language adjust to the story’s tone, as if distorted by hysteria (as, for example, in  “Fat Man My Love” – a story based blatantly on the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren transformed into an utterly over-the-top psychodrama about art and patriarchal power structures), or in the reverse case of those stories that are most restrained on the surface, where Oates tells of mundane events but enhances them, elevates them to a different level of significance by telling them in her hysterical tone of voice (like “The Dead”, Oates’s feminist take on James Joyce’ story of the same title or the short “Nairobi” whose unassuming surface hides the abyss of gender relations into which it drops the reader).

Summing up, I still do not know whether I like Joyce Carol Oates or not. Quite a few people do seem to love her work, or else I’d suspect that she was just not the kind of writer to be liked. I suppose I will just have to read more of her work to find out, and at least I can say that much that I find her interesting enough that I do want to find out.




  1. What an interesting series of thoughts… Oates has slipped under my radar completely and yet she sounds like a compelling albeit potentially frustrating author to read. I was struck by your comments about the hysteria of the stories somehow transforming them into tales which by their very extremity made their contents more valid or more shocking or more gripping – because facts alone are no longer enough to get our attention. What a brave attempt to make, even if – as you say – it doesn’t come off all the time. I don’t think I’m currently up to embarking on this mammoth highly-strung collection – for some reason I just don’t get on with short stories all that well – but if you had to recommend one of her works for me to start with, what would you suggest?

  2. I really cannot in good conscience recommend anything by her, seeing how I have not read anything but this story collection and one novel (out of approximately 50) of hers.

    The one that seems most frequently considered her best one is Blonde, her take on Marilyn Monroe.Seeing what she did with Hitchcock in Fat Man My Love, I would be very curious about that one, but for whatever reason it is not available as an e-book.

    On the other hand, the novels of hers I suspect I would probably like most are her Gothic ones, and there one would probably start with the first one (apparently they form some kind of lose sequence or family history), Bellefleur.

    Both novels run to about 750 pages, however….

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