Joyce Carol Oates: Triumph of the Spider Monkey

Considering the incredibly large amount of books that she has published, one would expect the works of Joyce Carol Oates to be mostly bland and streamlined, as easy to consume as they are (presumably) to write. And maybe some of them are, but everything I have read by her so far (a volume of Selected Stories, the novel Childwold and now this novella) have swerved very far from the middle of the road and offered challenging, exciting reading experiences. I’ll likely bump into a dud one day, but that day has not yet arrived.

Triumph of the Spider Monkey, then, starts with a baby being pulled out of a duffel bag that was found in a coin locker – and from that moment onwards, this slim but intense book (so intense, in fact, that I actually had to put it for a while down after each chapter) is threaded through with images of trying to break free from a confining inside towards a liberated outside, or its reverse, of being forced from an open outside into a closed inside. And in a way, this mirrors the reader’s situation, because for the 90 pages this novella extends, we find ourselves trapped inside the mind of its narrator, one Bobbie Gotteson. And that mind is emphatically not a pleasant place to be, because Bobbie is a murderer who killed nine women (hacked them to death, as he tells us (or himself?) – the novella does not indulge in any graphic details of the acts, however).

As we are informed very early into the novella, all the voices we are going to encounter are Bobbie’s, even those that purport to be someone else’s.* And there are many voices in Bobbie’s head: Apart from his own and that of a third-person narrator who tells part of his story there is a whole court of law where he stands trial for one of his murders (but only one, because things have to be done properly and in order and one at a time). The voices are not in harmony either, they often interrupt, contradict, or even accuse each other; and Bobbie’s mind in general is quite a bit of a mess, with things tumbling and rattling about in no discernible order – while the novella does start out with Bobbie’s (kind of) birth from a coin locker, there is no narrative continuity for the rest of the novella, its chapters are a succession of fragmented pieces, resonating with fragmented voices that never come together to form a coherent story.

Which actually may not be quite true, because there is Bobbie’s full name which will immediately ring several alarm bells for anyone speaking German. Bobbie Gotteson = “Gottes Sohn” = German for “son of God”. So we get a serial killer as Jesus analogue with his life, as far as we are able to put it together, mirroring that of Jesus, more or less. Unfortunately Oates missed out on dividing the novella into 14 chapters (she opted for 20 instead), but explicit references to Jesus abound, from disciples to crucifixion, and are almost as frequent as the inside / outside imagery. This might be (and probably is) Bobbie attempting to get some meaningful structure into his shattered life, but there might be something more going on as well. It also is hardly a coincidence that a murderer of women is set in parallel to the messiah of a monotheistic, extremely patriarchal religion, but I think even that does not quite exhaust the significance this analogy has for this novella, there is also the aspect that it serves to set Bobbie apart from his fellow men, puts a vast distance between him and everyone else – which also ties in with him being “born” from a coin locker, i.e., nothing human.

It is very hard to write a book about a serial killer without ending up glorifying him in some way or another (all the more so if you are writing it from the inside of his mind) – in fact, Triumph of the Spider Monkey is the first book I have read which manages to avoid this entirely. And this is in spite of the Jesus analogy I just pointed out – or possibly at least partially because of it. For one thing, the novella does not offer a realistic narrative, not even in a sense of realism which would include stream-of-consciousness writing. Triumph of the Spider Monkey is as stylized as it is fragmented and at no moment lets readers forget that they are reading literature rather than peeking through a window into someone’s soul. And yet, even though it is “only” literature, and highly self-conscious literature at that, never pretending to be anything else – or rather (as you probably guessed) precisely because of it -, it tells us more about its subject than any supposedly transparent-to-its-object, telling-it-as-it-is, “unpretentious” writing ever could. I’ve said it on several occasions before (and probably will on several more), but I think one really can’t say it often enough: Realism still is very much overrated as a way of showing truth, especially if that truth is something the reader didn’t already know before.

It is only consequential, then, that the subject of Triumph of the Spider Monkey is not quite what it appears to be on first sight, that it’s not really the portrait of a serial killer. Or rather, that aspect of the novella is but a means to an end, or, to use a different metaphor, the symptom of the disease to which Joyce Carol Oates here offers the pathogenesis, namely loneliness. Bobbie Gotteson is someone who from the very beginning of his life has been cut off from any meaningful contact with other humans, nobody ever has reached out to him, with the result that he ends being caught in a loneliness so deep that the only way he can bridge the gap that parts him from other humans is by violence, effectively destroying what he desires most. Put like this, it does sound rather trite (and do keep in mind that this is just my reading of the novella, you might come up with something entirely different), but that’s another glorious thing about literature, especially of the non-realist variety (although it has to be said that realist literature can achieve that effect,too, but it has to work harder to get there) that you cannot really boil it down to a fabula docet because when all is said and done, literature (good literature, anyway) never is about anything at all but rests in itself, an autonomous work of art. (Of course, that negation of a reality outside itself constitutes a statement, too, but that is something  to discuss when I’m doing a post on Theodor W.  Adorno’s Esthetic Theory, i.e. most likely never.) So, what Triumph of the Spider Monkey really boils down to is “a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” In other words: very strongly recommended.



* We are told this by a footnote, which of course begs the question: who wrote it? Is it by Bobbie, too? Or did some other entity add that footnote?



  1. The mind boggles, in a good way. Oates sounds like a formidable writer and I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read anything by her. In fact, I had her sidelined as one of those writers of what’s sometimes called, patronisingly, ‘women’s fiction’, but I clearly got *completely* the wrong idea about her. Your review is fearsomely intellectual, by the way. I was already deeply impressed by the time you nonchalantly threw in some Latin… *eyes wide*

    1. Sorry about the Latin and stuff; while it’s been decades since I studied English Literature, it appears to be a somewhat hard habit to shake off. I do try to moderate myself, but sometimes I just can’t help it and get carried away. 😉

      If by “women’s fiction” you are thinking of Jojo Moyes and her ilk then you really could not be more wrong. 😛 While Oates has written books that are considerably more conventional than Triumph of the Spider Monkey, I don’t think any of them falls under that category of comfort literature. However, her writing always has had a very pronounced feminist slant, and from that perspective certainly could be called women’s fiction.

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