Joyce Carol Oates, Beasts

Joyce Carol Oates @ The Belmont Library

Creative Commons licensed image by San Mateo County Library via Flickr

If we wanted to be writers we must examine the world with fresh, sceptical eyes.

Beasts is, I’m ashamed to say, my first Joyce Carol Oates. She’s one of those writers who has kept crossing my path but whom I’ve never quite got to read. I bought Beasts a couple of years ago when I saw it on the remainder table of my favourite independent bookshop – and still it took me some time to get to read it, but I’m glad I finally did. I didn’t really know what to expect – and I’m not quite sure what I got – but I nonetheless found it a compelling read that is staying with me.

Take the opening quote, for example. On the surface it makes perfect sense, and yet when we know who says it we see a whole different layer of meaning to it, a layer that doesn’t necessarily remove the fundamental truth but that certainly shows how such a truth can be twisted or, at least, complicated.

The plot concerns a young college student and her obsession with her poetry writing class teacher, Andre Harrow. The novel (novella, in fact) starts some 25 years after the main events of the novel, when our narrator is at the Louvre in Paris and sees a piece of sculpture that reminds her of the work of Harrow’s wife, Dorcas. The sculpture is an earthy totemic piece that is “primitively human” or, in fact, rather beast-like. In this short three page chapter we are introduced to the notion that something not quite right has happened. “It wasn’t burned after all”, the narrator says, and then soon after mentions the horrible deaths some quarter of a century earlier, of “two people I’d loved”. The final sentence of the chapter is:

This is not a confession. You will see, I have nothing to hide.

As soon as you see a statement like that you can be pretty sure you are in the hands of an unreliable narrator, and this is so here – though she’s cleverly disguised and could be taken to be reliable. It’s all a matter of perspective really! The novel is told first person, in flashback, so we do need to be aware that what she is saying may very well be coloured by her knowledge and experience, that what she says she was feeling at the time, may not be quite right. This adds to the complexity of the book. The structure, though, is pretty straightforward. There’s the first chapter in Paris in 2001, followed by a chapter, set in 1976, describing the night of the house fire (in which the two people died). The third chapter takes place four months before that. From this, the novel works chronologically forward again to the fire.

The novel has a smallish cast of characters – there’s the narrator (Gillian), Andre Harrow and Dorcas, and the girls of the poetry class. Gradually a complex picture is built up of surface friendships with secrecy and jealousy lying just beneath. The reason for this is that pretty well all the girls are obsessed with Andre and each it seems, in turn, have their way with him (or, should I say, vice versa). But here the plot thickens … though perhaps I’ll leave it there for you to discover for yourselves.

Let’s just say that this book is an unsettling exploration of the (sexual) games people play, games in which people can and do get badly hurt. It’s easy to see the young women as the victims – and I must say that to a large degree I think they are. Whenever there is a power imbalance (and this is why I disagree with Helen Garner‘s take in her non-fiction book, The first stone), I see the major wrong as being with those in power. However, that does not mean that the less powerful are not complicit in some way, because often they are, and this seems to be the case with Gillian. She says “I was not predator seeking prey, I was myself the prey. I was the innocent party”. But she has choices, and she makes them, knowing ….

I was in love now. I took strength from my love for Mr Harrow. Though knowing, for I was no fool, that it could never be reciprocated.

And yet, she of course, like the girls before her, lets herself be drawn into a situation that is both thrilling and destructive. Harrow is an aficionado of DH Lawrence – Lawrence was big on campuses in the 1970s as I recollect – and tells his students (with terrible irony) that:

Lawrence is the supreme poet of Eros. No recriminations, no reproaches, no guilt, no ‘morality’. For what’s ‘morality’ but a noose around the neck? A noose? What’s ‘morality’ but what other people want you to do, for their own selfish unstated purposes.

Hmm … this sounds a bit like the Nietzschean conundrum explored in The immoralist doesn’t it, but Oates plays it out in a very different way by exploring its implications across gender, age/experience and power differences to see what falls out.

The novel starts with an epigraph from a DH Lawrence poem:

I love you, rotten
Delicious rottenness

… wonderful are the hellish experiences

Wonderful for whom one may well ask? The ending – or is it the beginning – provides no definite answer but it sure teases out the complexity of “love” running rather amok amongst people who think little about the ramifications of their actions. Damage, as it usually does in such situations, ensues. What price morality, eh?

Joyce Carol Oates
London: Orion, 2002
ISBN: 0752855921

20 thoughts on “Joyce Carol Oates, Beasts

  1. First, I’m gobsmacked! I would’ve sworn you’d read JCO before.
    Second, unreliable narrator? This is certainly your type of book then!
    Third, that poem sounds fascinating. Do you have an DH Lawrence?

    • Nope I haven’t, and yep you know me! I do have a book of DH Lawrence poetry. If I remember correctly I loved one about a snake coming to drink from a tap or other water source near a homestead (at least I’m sure it was DHLawrence, and perhaps from his time in Australia?)

  2. I am so pleased you’ve read this, my favorite Joyce Carol Oates book. It was also my first JCO. That is not to say there are not other excellent ones. The Gravedigger’s Daughter is another quite good novel (from among those I’ve read). I recommend Beasts often, so I am happy you seem to have found much to like.

    The freshness of your analysis has me eager to re-read (again) Beasts. The parallel you note with The Immoralist is not one that had occurred to me. Very good stuff. It makes sense that I would like them both. I will try to remember that those who like one of those books will very likely enjoy the other. At least, that’s what I am thinking. Would you agree?

    • Well, I liked it a lot … I love ambiguous, non-black-and-white books like this so I hoped you would like my review. I thought of you as I wrote it. Do you have any perspectives to add? I would like to have teased out so much but this is not a 3000 word academic essay after all. (Hmm…does that mean much to you? In Australia, university essays are always defined by word count, so first year essays, in my time at least, tended to be 1000-1500 words while latter year essays would often be 2000-3000 words.)

      • It has been long enough since I read Beasts that I am not sure I can give you much detailed analysis. (As a side note, a word count for essays is pretty typical for US universities as well. I can’t say they break down so clearly by year, but the requirements do tend to get more stringent as the student advances in a given subject.)

        JCO does have an interest in power politics and the ways individuals’ psychologies play out in a relationship. If there is a knock against her, it is that her men tend always to be bad, whether violent or unfaithful, and the women “victims”. I think one of the strengths of this work is that she provided a more complex picture than man = bad, abuser and woman = powerless victim. As you so nicely point out, Gillian is not simply acted upon. She is an empowered actor, perhaps to some degree a perpetrator, in this intense psychological drama. Others of the girls are too.

        Another aspect I enjoyed was of the parallels between writing (the teacher always wanting the girl to dig deeper) and the sexual relationships (the girls always wanting Andre to give them more emotional connection). There is more complexity in this idea than I can find words for at the moment, but one of the beauties of the book is how certain themes reverberate and reinforce each other throughout the work but not, to my ear, in an overworked or overwrought way.

        And, as commenters below have suggested, JCO’s work can be uneven in terms of quality and quite varied in theme/style. She is not like, say, Paul Auster who, at least according to the critic James Wood, tends to rewrite the same book over and over.

        • Thanks Kerry. Yes, it’s the complexity of the characters that really makes the book … it’s not black and white though there is more power on one side. I like your point re the writing relationship too … that’s something I’d like to have given more thought to because it clearly is a feature as you say – being fearless in your writing, being fearless in your life.

          I still need to read Auster … I picked up Beasts from the remainders table at my favourite independent store. There is often an Auster there so will one day pick one up. (I’ve done a good job this year of working through the TBR pile…better to date than I have for a many a year).

  3. Joyce Carol Oates is a writer whose work I’ve read a lot. I always like her stories, several of her novels I’ve enjoyed a lot such as “You Must Remember This” and “I’ll Take You There”. But other times I’ve found her work completely exasperating such as “We Were the Mulvaneys” when she beats you and her characters over the head with her obsession.Sounds like ‘Beasts’ might be the good Joyce Carol Oates.

    • From what you say, it sounds like it probably is. Read it and let me know – that will give me an idea! I would like to read more, so will note you recommendations above.

      I didn’t write much about the style as I often do, but I did like her language too. Pretty spare in this one but some great turns of phrase.

  4. I’ve read a few JCO essays and a short story or two but none of her novels. She is one of those well-known and prolific writers I always mean to read but just haven’t gotten to. I think I even have a couple of her novels on a shelf somewhere. This one sounds like a good one.

  5. I’ve just brought my first JCO home from the library, “Little Bird of Heaven’, which has been shortlisted for the IMPAC award. She’s one of those writers I keep meaning to read but never getting round to. You’ve made me even more keen to get onto this as I’m always intrigued by the unreliable narrator. But, it will have to wait for a while. I have two others I must read for groups discussions before I can get round to it.

    • Ah, like me … we’re both finally getting to her around the same time. I look forward to your review. I tend to like unreliable narrators too – perhaps because there’s something honest about their unreliability! (And, I know only too well about reading for group discussions AND of one’s own choice … a neverending balancing act.)

    • Ah yes, Susan, that’s an interesting way of looking at it. It probably starts off somewhat unselfconsciously but they aren’t children and do become aware not, though, before some become seriously damaged.

  6. Like you, JCO has kept crossing my path but I have never actually read a book by her. From your review, I can’t say this is one I’m desparate to read – don’t get me wrong, your review is excellent as always, but the subject of the book is not particularly up my street. Oates sounds like an author who likes to explore relationships in the context of the philosophical out look of the various people which is always interesting but can sometimes be a little overworked to the detriment of a good story

    • I’ve been rather glad to find that I’m not the only one not have read Oates. There are just way too many authors out there. There should be a law against it! I think, from what some have told me, that Oates is particularly interested in the issue of prey-predators in relationships. I know what you mean about the philosophical outlook sometimes becoming overworked. We all have different tolerance levels for such things I think, and for me this one was so tight (novella) and closely focussed on the 1st person POV, which I found compelling, that it worked well.

  7. This book sounds right up my alley! I love books with unreliable narrators, those set in collegiate settings and everlasting question of predator or prey. I’ve never read Oates before either but I do remember seeing an interview of her (I think about Margaret Atwood…) wearing giant glasses and then hearing my lecturer snort with laughter. 🙂

  8. I’ve read two of her books – We Were the Mulvaney’s which was quite famous, but not particularly good, and then Zombie, which was remarkable. These are perhaps the two most disparate books from the same writer I’ve ever read. One family drama, one inside the mind of a deranged monster. I have several more of hers in the TBR, and borrowed a YA one from the library the other day actually- I hadn’t realised that she had written any until I stumbled on this one.

    • Oh, thanks for this Louise. Must say I’ve not heard great reviews of We were the Muvaneys so that’ll not be high (or at all!) on my list. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the YA novel.

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