The 5,942nd novel by Joyce Carol Oates, 2010’s A Fair Maiden, was my first experience with her creative prose. The short narrative develops to its inevitable exclamation mark with increasing back-and-forth manipulation from the two main characters.
Sixty-eight year old Marcus Kidder pursues sixteen-year-old Katya with precious dialogue which would occasion either vomiting or wild laughter in any woman over twenty. But Katya, though prematurely worldly-wise, has no experience with which to register the laid-on sophistication, and her final response, late in the novel, is gear-grindingly predictable. Kidder’s back-story is given only the sketchiest of outlines, adding further to the reader's lack of interest in the lead characters in what could have been a terrifically heightened and psychologically exciting narrative.
Why terrific and exciting? Because despite my severe misgivings, Oates has a lot of natural talent at her disposal. The writing is excellent, lyrical with a purpose (her Lawrencian fandom has paid off – the flower metaphors are superb); the plot, though problematic in obviousness and pacing, nevertheless manages to build suspense; the setting is rendered with apt detail and interesting variation; the minor characters are convincing and vividly drawn (it’s too bad they weren’t given more development); and the denouement will either disgust or move the reader, maybe both.
In an interview, Oates has called herself a realist. This book lacks any trace of humour, so as realism in fiction has come be known, yes, the label fits: Dreiser and Zola (I’m aware of the naturalism tag here, as well) were as grim as they come. But it’s a dangerous game to play, not presenting any offsetting positive character(s), and not even dipping a toe into the black humour pool once in a while, because realism then becomes a narrowly-focused study of various extreme characters, evil pitted against lesser or equal evil. It’s not the one-sidedness of it that troubles, but the lack of proportion and ... well, reality. Maybe other work proves me wrong – I’m assuming quite a bit, after all – and I look forward to reading one of her other novels, the corpus of which take up the entire third floor of the Vancouver Central Library branch.