Monday, October 27, 2008
Today, for perhaps the one hundredth time in my career as a librarian, I attempted to investigate what I have long thought of as "the mystery of Joyce Carol Oates". One of my colleagues is her huge fan. He orders all her books for the library. She writes them (this is no joke) at the rate of three or four per year and has been at it since the early Sixties. Back when I was still young and hopeful I used to ask her great fan, my colleague, for recommendations. "What is a good one to start with? Which one should I read?" He could never narrow it down. "They're all good," he would say. By now I have probably picked up at least a hundred of them at one time or another. Each time, I will read the first page or two, or else read a page or two out of the middle. Every time, feeling defeated, I am sadly compelled to close the book. What is she trying to say? Why is she trying to say it? These are questions I can never answer.
Today, the Oates novel pictured above came back to the library from the bindery where it had been sent for repairs. I opened it randomly at page 241 and read the passage quoted here in bold type.
He went through to the foyer and to the plate-glass lobby. It was early evening outside: lights were on, playing gaudily on the boardwalks. Shar clenched his fists. He felt tears coming into his eyes. When he went outside he was startled at the difference in temperature. It was still warm outside, and humid; he felt betrayed. Crowds passed idly, looking at the motel. Some people still wore sunglasses. Music from the boardwalk rose giddily into the air and mixed with the hot dusty wind and the smell of food and beer and salt and perspiration. Shar stared into the crowd.
Well, I said to myself. Well, it is specific. What organs did Shar feel his tears coming into? The reader knows. What appendages did Shar clench? The reader knows that too. Clench and fists. They just seem to go together. Like tears and eyes. Even better is that repetition of the word outside three different times, a helpful reminder for any readers who are geographically challenged or inattentive. Nobody will be allowed to feel lost. Best of all, though, are the adverbs. I was struck to notice that in this one short passage we have both gaudily and giddily. Plus idly. These words evoke a carnival atmosphere, I concluded.
But then I got to a puzzle. If the music is rising (giddily) into the air and mixing with the hot dusty wind and also mixing with the smell of four different things that are mentioned, this feast for the senses is located well above everybody's heads, right? So who is sensing it? Shar is down on the ground, so I don't think it can be him. With his clenching and crying and staring, he is clearly preoccupied with some inner struggle, anyway. But if he is not using his five senses in the delicate and detailed manner described by the author, then who is?
Why, she herself! Joyce Carol Oates is clinging to the top of a lamp-post! From there, above it all, she can smell the tourists and keep her eye on the protagonist and bestow her perceptions like maple syrup over the entire scene.