The Doll-Master – Joyce Carol Oates

The Doll-Master is a selection of six haunting stories rooted in the horror of the subconscious as much as the supernatural.

At the core of them all these stories, though each very different from the next, is the sense that fear and tension come from the unknown inside of us, and that it is this which gives rise to the kinds of terrible things which might are sometimes associated supernatural terror.

Oakes uses some of the tropes of weird fiction but reverses the twist, so that events seem supernatural but turn out to have plain every day causes. The Doll Master is about a young man screwed up by the death of his sister who turns into a murderer, and Mystery, Inc is written in the style of classic Poe but is just straight up greed that motivates the killing of the bookshop owner.

What amplifies this theme of the horror residing within is the realist style of writing for which Oakes is known. The characters and settings are very much in the descriptive real-life style that we know her for in books like We were the Mulvaneys and Carthage, and so when we learn about the boy collecting dolls or the woman who fears her husband will murder her while they are on a trip to the Galapagos Isles, the story throws the reader between malevolent spirits and people just being people.

Even Big Momma, a story about someone who is befriended by a family who own a room-sized human-eating snake, is built around the sad reality of a child whose parent is so pre-occupied with her own life that she doesn’t see the danger her child is on.

What’s great, then, about these really readable stories is how much they tell us about subconscious drives that cause odd and apparently supernatural events.

The missing protagonist at the heart of Joyce Carol Oates’s Broke Heart Blues

An evocative story, Broke Heart Blue weaves the voices of countless upper class Americans together in a powerful tale of memory, perception and class.

The background to the plot is the early years of John Reddy Heart, a working class teenager from our of town and new to a well-off school in Willowsville in upstate New York. Adored by the girls for his rugged aloofness and admired by the boys for his manliness, he ends up shooting a man – Melvin Riggs – apparently after Riggs has a fall out with Reddy’s Mum, the beautiful and out of control Dhalia Heart. We subsequently learn that John Reddy was not responsible but takes the fall anyway in order to protect his family.

What’s interesting is how little John Reddy Heart is in it. The book is split into three parts. Part 1 is at high school and told through the eyes of various teenagers, first focusing on their lust for him, later the trial. Part 2 is twenty years later when John Reddy is trying to make his way as Mr Fix It, an odd-jobs person, and build a relationship with a young woman, Nola. And Part 3 is a 30 year reunion for the school, where the privileged kids of yesteryear reunite in a decadent party that is fuelled by alcohol and the lack of John Reddy a Heart.

Beyond the missing Heart, so to speak, the most striking feature of the book is the style. At no point is there a clear narrator but instead a range of interweaving voices and perspectives. The technique is at once gripping and difficult, and has the effect of reinforcing the subjective views on what’s happening and the impossibility of getting clarity. It’s all emotion, conjecture and desperation. Other than John Reddy there are no strong characters developed, despite this being a dense 500 page book.

In their youth, the mass of teenagers – Verrie Myers, Art Lutz, Kate Olmsted, Dwayne Hewson and countless others – are so in thrall to their passions that they can’t get a clear sense of what’s going on for John Reddy. He is living a difficult life with a neglectful mother, forced to be the grown up rather than her – but none of them ever appear to realise the gravity of the situation.
And thirty years later, at the reunion, their memories of school are idealised and often wrong. There are events they have completely rewritten, people forgotten – and John Reddy Heart looms large in their lives despite them not knowing him while at school or since.

They are, it seems, all successful white upper class Americans who were always destined to do well. Their love affair with John Reddy Heart represents a shallow infatuation with the working class and troubled life of John Reddy Heart which they appropriated for their own stories, entertainment and collective memories without ever thinking of his life. In this sense, John Reddy Heart is missing from the story both in the sense that he isn’t much part of the plot and in the sense that his thoughts, motives and life are never seen or understood by the other characters that place such significance in him.

Man Crazy – Joyce Carol Oates

True to form, Joyce Carol Oates’s Man Crazy is a powerful and affecting book. It tells the story of Ingrid, whose father mysteriously chose to leave after involvement in a murder and whose mother lived a needy and unsettled life, largely reliant on a series of men for a mix money and adoration. As Ingrid hits adolescence she experiences the same kinds of neediness as her mother, desperately craving the attention and lust of men.

It ends with her living as a sex slave in a biker – Satanist cult led by the depraved Enoch Skaggs. She exposes the cult, in the end, though it’s not clear entirely to her how that happened. Throughout the book the sheer sadness and desperation of Ingrid’s upbringing and its impact on her personality is so present, so powerful, that at times it’s difficult to continue reading.

The most affecting point is Ingrid’s poetry reading at secondary school. She has won the poetry competition and is to read out her winning poem during the end of year assembly. She cannot believe that anyone would think it worthy of winning and works herself into a state of panic in the run up to the reading. She scratches itches on her face so she is bleeding from her hairline and decides at the last minute to find another poem, by a classic poet, to read instead, which she mumbles through, the teachers and pupils in shock. The build up to the performance, excruciating to read, conveys such a strong insight into her insecure, under-confident and needy character.

Middle Age – Joyce Carol Oates

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.

We were the Mulvaneys – Joyce Carol Oates


On one level this is a classic family saga – it tells the story of what at first sight seems like the perfect post-war American family – homely successful and self-made. But there’s a sense of foreboding. The seventeen year old daughter, Marianne, is raped after a Valentine prom by a boy from a wealthy established family. The rest of the book deals with the fall-out for the family: the Dad, Michael Sr, can’t handle it and sends his daughter away, effectively never seeing her again; the Mum, Corrine, maintains the facade of strength but denies what has happened, supported by a deep Christian faith; one brother, Michael Sr, just gets on with his life; another, Patrick, becomes more and more obsessed by it, eventually confronting and executing justice on the rapist; and the final brother, Judd, tells the story in this book.

The book is very impressive on psychological minutea and insight, delving subtly but deeply into the reactions of each person. It doesn’t always try to explain in full what people are doing or thinking, and why, but you can always see the ripples from the incident. The level of denial about what happened by the parents, especially Corrine, and the level of self-blame by Marianne, is astounding, with the former very much feeding the latter.

An interesting theme running through the book is faith: an unswerving Christian faith in god guiding their lives, despite everything, is crucial to the Mum and daughter’s reactions of denial and self-blame. Patrick, on the other hand, becomes a Dawkins-like Darwinian, ridiculing the idea of faith, though one is led to wonder whether his conviction about empiricism and science is in fact exactly the same as his mother’s faith: an appeal to something bigger to make sense of what had happened to their family.

Class also features heavily, though subtly. The Mulvaneys are working class made good, with Michael Sr the classic self made man who has built a successful roofing business and is now part of the civic elite in the area – in the country club, the chamber of commerce etc. Marianne is raped by the son of a local lawyer who is part of the traditional elite – landed, historically rich and powerful. It is this class difference between the two parties that has the impact: the rapist and family face no consequences from the event, whereas the Mulvaneys are ostracised, indicating that their status was contingent on the success and good will of the elite, whereas the elite’s status was solid. Who would be believed if it came down to it – the farm family or the establishment? Class may also be cause of the inherent inferiority the adult Mulvaneys feel, which seems to deter them from pursuing justice and leads then to blame themselves and Marianne for the rape, rather than the rapist.

An excellent and very thoughtful novel that successfully combines a gripping story with fascinating, believable characters whilst tackling some big issues.