Joyce Carol Oates, Beasts
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
… 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