them by Joyce Carol Oates

7/26/08: I’m over halfway through this book, “the third and most ambitious of a trilogy of novels exploring the inner lives of representative young Americans from the perspective of a ‘class war’.” “The them of the novel are poor whites, separated by race (and racist) distinctions from their near neighbors, poor blacks and Hispanics.” The words of explanation are Ms. Oates’ commentary on her own novel in an afterword at the end of the book.

I’m finding the novel condescending and full of stereotypes: the spoiled rich girl, the poor but violent young man full of unresolved rage, the eternal victim of that “victimless crime”, prostitution. I’ve been borderline poor, not in the inner city, and I’ve lived among poor people in the city. I don’t believe there is any “class war” in the U.S. Racism, yes. A division of classes, yes. But the poor people I have known mostly don’t think of themselves as poor, resent being classified as poor, intend to become middle class or rich as soon as hard work or a lucky break will enable that to happen. And there are all sorts of poor people. Some are hard working and others are lazy. Some are conscientiously religious, and others are profane and vulgar. Some are happy; others are morbidly depressed. Ms. Oates’ them are all the same: materialistic, violent, and devoid of moral values (probably because moral values are “middle class values” in the jargon and the perspective of the sociologist).

Ms. Oates again: “Few readers of them since its 1969 publication have been them because them as a class doesn’t read, certainly not lengthy novels.” How patronizingly untrue. And yet, Ms. Oates’s main character, Maureen, one of them, reads and enjoys Jane Austen and other novels. Perhaps the author is correct in writing that the poor as a class don’t read novels like them because they generally prefer hope and optimism to a vision that condemns them to generations of poverty and violence and victimhood.

7/27/08: I was sitting in church this morning thinking about Loretta, Maureen, and Jules, the central characters in them. Even though I still believe they tend toward stereotype, there are people out there, them, who fit the stereotype. What does the Gospel have to say to the Lorettas, hard as nails, seen it all, loud, brash and poverty enslaved? How can the Church, Jesus’s church, reach and speak to the Maureens of the city, victims of a bad home, bad education, a dearth of values, and their own longing for something better? If Jesus himself could speak to the Samaritan woman who was both of these women in one, can’t the Church somehow act redemptively in the lives of women like these as Christ’s representatives? And Jules. At a point in the story Jules, the smart but criminally destined young man, has a Bible and time and inclination to read it. (He’s in the hospital.) But he says, “My main discovery is that people have always been the same, lonely and worried and hoping for things, and that they have written their thoughts down and when we read them we are the same age as they are.” Jules finds hope and fellow feeling in the Scriptures but no salvation, no change. How could Christians, how could God’s Spirit, reach a man so embedded in sin and degradation and lift him up, not into the middle class, but into heaven itself? I’m not sure. I know it happens for some people, but not for others. I do know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only hope for people like Loretta, Maureen, and Jules . . . and for people like me, good old middle class me, just as sinful and degraded in my own middle class way.

There you have it. I have already this week established myself as a philistine and an anachronism. A family member, who shall remain nameless, accused me of calling her an elitist when I confessed my lack of appreciation for one of her favorite novels, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. And now I fear that the kindred spirit-ness that a certain blogger and I have shared in the past is tinged with a lack of understanding on my part. I will say that them made me think about poverty and racism and class struggle and sin, but I didn’t enjoy reading it and don’t wish to repeat the experience anytime soon. (Maybe some of the other novels of Joyce Carol Oates would suit me better? She’s quite a prolific writer, and this one is the only one I’ve read.)

So be it. Give me Dickens or Dostoyevsky or Victor Hugo or just a rousing adventure by Tolkien or Dumas. There’s plenty of poverty and and evil and violence in those authors’ books, but there’s also something else, a lack of inevitabliity, dare I say, a sense of hope? From the twentieth century, I’ll take Alan Paton or P.D. James, Dorothy Sayers or even my newest discovery Wendell Berry (something of an anachronism himself). But saints preserve me from the modern sociological novel.

Joyce Carol Oates fans, we’re still friends, right?

5 thoughts on “them by Joyce Carol Oates

  1. It’s a case, I think, of the Emperor’s New Fiction Writer. I can’t imagine *enjoying* her books. The plots are depressing and the characters are depressing and the effect is to create a mood in the reader that is depressing. I went on a binge of reading her at one point, having enjoyed hearing her speak and excited to discover a prolific novelist who was highly regarded. It didn’t work. I became near-suicidal and very depressed (just kidding). But seriously, all humankind seems tainted after you read much of her. And none of her characters, at least none that I ever found, are anything other than morose and awful to each other.

    Whew. That was a relief to say to someone who reads a lot too. I kept thinking it was something wrong with me!

    Best to you —

  2. Ugh! Joyce Carol Oates. I read 4 or 5 of her books when I was in my 20’s and didn’t enjoy a single one. In fact, they all were a monumental waste of reading time for me. When I heard that Gore Vidal (not writer I enjoy, either) famously said that the three saddest words in the English language are “Joyce Carol Oates” I laughed so hard!

    Ah, well, all readers have different tastes, and isn’t it wonderful that there are so many writers and books to accommodate us all?!

  3. I went through a phase in my early 20s when I read tons of Joyce Carol Oates, and then one day I just stopped. I can’t remember which book it was that finally made me realize what you wrote in your last paragraph–the “lack of inevitability” and the lack of hope. I spotted a couple of new Oates’ novels at the library last week and thought about picking one for just a second. Then the urge passed, thankfully. Oates reminds me a lot of Jane Smiley.

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