Having only read Norwegian Wood, this was quite a surprising read. It was Kafka-esque in the sense that the main character was led from one action to the next with no understanding of why and little control over his destiny. And it had a strong dose of science fiction and fantasy.
It turns out the narrator is a ‘shuffler’ and the last survivor of an experiment by a science professor. He meets the Professor and his unsocialised daughter and they embark on a quest beneath what is and isn’t contemporary Tokyo city – a quest at the end of which he is destined to die. The protagonist accepts his fate with a shrug and humour in the firm tradition of a hard boiled hero.
This alternates with an alternative ‘perfect’ world in which nothing happens, which it turns out is in the mind of the protagonist. It’s a slow, eerie fantasy world, a village, where he is detached from his shadow, and which ultimately he rejects for the uncertainty and danger of an imperfect but real world beyond.
It’s a strange book. Hard to follow and dragging occasionally, particularly in the alternative village. The last 100 pages pick up, as the theme becomes clear and the plot quickens. The book contains interesting ideas and a few gripping moments but ultimately it is the characters – the protagonist, his librarian girlfriend, the Professor’s daughter – who are fun, readable, well characterised and make it a strong story.
Middle Age shouldn’t be a good book – a long descriptive novel with a minimalist plot populated by affluent and unlikable fifty somethings. Yet it grips.
In part this is down to Joyce Carol Oates’ incredible ability to articulate deep feelings and thoughts. She, more than any other writer I’ve read, has a powerful ‘hyper-realist’ style – one that in best articulated by distinguishing from the hyper-realism of crime fiction novels (see my short review of Alex Gray’s Glasgow Kiss for this). Whereas the latter try to connect with the reader by using obvious, everyday and sometimes banal language, Oates’ hyper-realism taps into inner feelings and complexities that we often don’t recognise in ourselves and others until she says it. It’s a hyper-realism of our internal as opposed to our external selves.
Middle Age also has the related theme – that, if you like, there’s always more going on under the surface. It begins when Adam Berendt, a much-loved local artist in affluent Salt Hill in upstate New York dies trying to rescue a drowning girl. And it follows the fall out for a number of individuals in the community. There are affairs (Lionel Hoffman, Augusta Cutler), new children (Roger Cavanagh), complete changes of direction (Marin Troy, Augusta Cutler), fall outs with old children (Abigail de Pres, Roger Cavanagh), car crashes (Abigail de Pres), dog attacks (Camile and Lionel Hoffman), and, it transpires, Adam Berendt was far more complex than he seemed, with a hidden difficult upbringing, a string of false identities and an array of shares and investments.
What we find, ultimately, is that they may appear to be the stereotype of upper middle class America but in fact, as Oates digs into their characters, it seems all have complex and evolving inner lives. Middle age, it turns out, is not the sedate resting ground it might appear but is in fact another chapter in life’s constant change and renewal.