Joyce Carol Oates' Marriages and Infidelities

Forever inventive, but never profoundly imaginative

  • Love and marriage
  • Love and marriage
  • They go together
  • Like a horse and carriage
  • This I tell you brother
  • You can't have one
  • You can't have one
  • You can't have one
  • Without the other

"Love and Marriage," that popular prim little minuet of the '50s, that hallowed advertising jingle-jangle equation, has tumbled down, Joyce Carol Oates, prolific poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic who made the cover of Newsweek last December, has replaced it with one of her own: Marriage and Infidelity. One implies the other, one means the other, you can't have one without the other. If a real marriage is an intimate relationship, a close union, then, she suggests, it is to be found only outside the polite middle-class contractual marriage and only through adultery. Marriages and Infidelities: This is the title of her latest collection of short stories, 24 in number, 497 pages in length, due for paperback release this week.

Take the typical Joyce Carol Oates woman in a Joyce Carol Oates world. She is a white middle-class Anglo-Saxon, she is pre-woman's liberation, she is not self-conscious, she is not aware of her position, she is not employed, she is numb. She lives a life of habit under the dead wearing-down weight of domestic detail, the nightmare unreal all-too-familiar world of Maxwell House Instant Coffee, Hamburger Helper, deodorants and cold capsules, beet baby food, subdivisions named Fox Hollow, checking the toothbrushes to make sure the kids brushed their teeth, and the endless round of deciding what's for dinner. Or take the typical Joyce Carol Oates man. He's a mediocre unimaginative professor who lives for his notes, he's a 46-year-old car salesman, at his job for a quarter of a century, who has never once allowed himself to dream.

As one of her characters says, "It is a plot if you imagine people in love — the lazy crisscrosses of love, blows, stares, tears." It is just this — plot, not character, not style, which gives a Joyce Carol Oates story its reason for being. And the mechanism producing action is simple, invariable.

For her characters its either daily death by downing or escape by violence — whether violence in the form of brutal outburst directed at the children, a crazed adulterous passion whose intimacy is physical only, total and suicidal withdrawal, or a wildly neurotic perversion of society's notion of marriage. And her main characters almost always move to escape.

Stories end with a mother beating her daughter with a big metal spoon or with a married man either raping or dreaming he's raping — it doesn't matter which — a girl in the park. With a middle-aged man walking off his job in the middle of the day and driving home in a daze and going upstairs and locking the bedroom door and getting into bed and never, never getting up again. Or with a young bereaved fiance of a rock star watching the autopsy of her lover, organ by organ, and striding out of the operating room elated in her widow's black, knowing that now they are married, really married, forever. For these characters, the only real redeeming thing in life is violence, exciting and disturbing, the Ernst Munch urge to scream and the doing of it.

In a Joyce Carol Oates story violence is not only the result of society's cultivated repression, but it is preferable to it. Her characters are dangerous, sick, obsessed, but she asks us not to judge them, not to condemn them. Her vision is similar to, but not as acute, not as sharp, as that of Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange. He is one step ahead in his belief that "it is preferable to have a world of violence undertaken in full awareness — violence chosen as an act of the will — than a world conditioned to be good or harmless." Whether drugged by dreary routine or high on passion, her characters are still asleep. It is an explosive reflex: They are not revolutionaries, they do not consciously choose violence but only blindly react to their situation.

And like them, Joyce Carol Oates herself seems to be asleep. She seems not an author in control but a medium through which countless stories speak. Her passion is writing, as her mountain of books shows, and it's a perpetually hungry passion. Her stories hurry on, their blunt, raw, crude prose often not even pausing for complete sentences, rushing to their conclusions so that she can start the next. She herself suppresses no detail, there is no such arbiter as good taste here. We hear of characters' less attractive habits — Paul's wife listening to him blow "his nose in the bathroom, first one nostril and then the other, carefully, seriously" or Marshall seeing "that queer silent smacking of his father's lips — again and again." In story after story we hear of fears of the flesh sagging and shifting, aging, as though all security depended on the firmness of the body.

And we read on compulsively, noticing that she experiments in story-telling here and there, noticing double newspaper columns side by side on the page, noticing the self-dramatizing of the neurotic first-person narrator who is confused, and confuses us, about the boundaries of fantasy and reality, plot and life. But these experiments hardly matter. Joyce Carol Oates remains a traditional, not an innovative writer, and although this is the best of her four collections of short stories, it reveals no real growth. She is forever inventive, but never profoundly imaginative. Her themes are the same, her style the same, there is no deepening of her vision of Americana.

But and nonetheless, Marriage and Infidelities remains a book more than well worth buying and reading. But buy this and don't be tempted, even if you are a novel reader, to instead pick up her just-released, shocking-pink-covered, outrageously expensive $7.95 provocatively titled novel Do With me What You Will. It's a bore, the worst of all her fiction, drawn out to meaninglessness, and unbelieving capped with a fairy tale lovers-rushing-into-each-others-arms-at-dusk ending.

In Marriage and Infidelities, on the other hand, there is much truth. Her characters are those we could become if we unthinkingly let ourselves go. her characters' fantasies may be our own. And underlying the violence and morbidity of Marriage and Infidelities is a romantic, persistent belief in the possibilities of intimacy between two people which we must take seriously. As one of her characters says: "She thought of marriage and its failure. Marriage was the deepest, most mysterious, most profound exploration open to man: she had always believed that, and she believed it now. because she had failed did not change that belief. This plunging into another's soul, this pressure of bodies together, so brutally intimate, was the closest one could come to a sacred adventure, she still believed that."

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