Joyce Carol Oates at Her Scary Best with Daddy Love

The last couple of Joyce Carol Oates books that I read I haven’t loved (Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You and My Sister, My Love), and one from last year, Mudwoman, I couldn’t even finish. I had been particularly looking forward to Mudwoman because it was billed as a horror novel, my favorite, but I got one hundred pages in and nothing had really happened—I hated it—so I had to put it away. I was disheartened and did not immediately put her newest titles on hold because I was afraid of being disappointed. Oates has been my favorite writer for about twenty years, and I didn’t want anything to threaten her status. But then I heard what Daddy Love, her newest, was about—familiar JCO territory—and I had to read it.

 

Daddy Love starts off with every parent’s nightmare, their child being abducted, but instead of being a slam, bang beginning, the novel starts incredibly slow with the abduction being told and retold three times by the mother with slight variations. I knew that Oates had a purpose for this—she’s an experimental writer—but I don’t think today’s editor would have the patience to let a first-time writer get away with this. Those three chapters would probably be labeled repetitive, and if the writer wanted to be published, he or she would have to cut these and beef up the more seamy material in the book.

Daddy Love represents the whole horrific experience of a child abduction. A parent who has a child ripped from his or her arms would most likely repeat that last memory with the child over and over again, trying to figure out how the event could have been prevented (if they allow themselves to remember it). These three repeating chapters and the cover of Daddy Love serve as fair warning to how dark the material of this novel is, and there’s plenty of time for the reader to get out of it.

 

Once the mother has exhausted herself, trying to figure out how she could have prevented the abduction of her five-year-old son, the novel jumps to Daddy Love, a charismatic part-time reverend who pedals his good looks and women’s attraction to him in order to get them to cater to him and his sons. Daddy Love carefully hunts for each of his victims, believing that God reveals the special boy to him and he is saving the child from an awful parent. The child must be old enough so he can take care of his needs, but he must be young enough so he’s attractive to Daddy Love and his mind can be molded. Daddy Love’s latest son Deuteronomy has become too old, and that’s why the reverend got rid of him and sought out Robbie, who Daddy Love renames Gideon after carefully breaking him through one of many tortures. The problem with Daddy Love is that the torture never ends.

Daddy Love turned into a freezer book for me. I got to a part of the novel where I knew what was going to happen, but I couldn’t face it for a week. This wasn’t cliché, it was just what inevitably had to occur based on how Oates portrayed Daddy Love and Gideon’s relationship.

Here’s where I had to stop for a while:

“In some of the watercolors, which were more brightly colored than the drawings, and less ominous, the boy was in a canoe-shaped vessel that floated above the earth. All about him, stars and moons in a nighttime sky.

Inside the canoe-like vessel with the boy was an animal resembling a dog. Sandy-colored, with erect ears and a long curved furry tail.

A friendly animal! This was a relief. This was in contrast to the sinister tone of the drawings.

…Gideon called her ‘Missy.’ Gideon loved loved loved Missy.

Missy was Gideon’s responsibility, utterly. Gideon fed her twice daily and kept her plastic food-dishes clean. He kept her water-dishes filled with fresh water. He brushed her coat, which was a warm beautiful sand-colored coat that tended to snarl, with a special dog-brush. Especially, Gideon was zealous about keeping her from barking at the wrong time.”

 

I think the most powerful part of the book is the ending, where what should be a happy resolution of a child being reunited with his parents isn’t. Robbie/Gideon has suffered irreparable damage at the hands of Daddy Love, and the return to his parents is rocky and filled with anxiety for son, mother, and father. A huge vacuum was left in Robbie’s parents’ lives after his abduction, but once he’s returned their days are filled with moving households, therapy, and questions: Who is Robbie now? What’s he thinking? What does he remember of his early life? and Will he ever be the same? And what Oates conveys is that these abducted, abused children are marked for life if they’re lucky enough to escape their captors.

Joyce Carol Oates and cat.

Joyce Carol Oates and cat.

Advertisements

Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You Is Pretty Forgettable

Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You is Joyce Carol Oates’s latest young adult offering, and I always feel like these novels are attempts by her to make sense of new technology. In Oates’s young adult novels, Internet searches, instant messaging, and texting take up great chunks of the book and are important plot points compared to her adult novels and short stories. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I often have to ask younger kids how to do something on the computer. They’ve grown up always used to one while I had to learn in my last few years of high school. I know Oates got a new iPhone a while ago and was enamored with the photo function. Lots of cat pictures followed, which is very teenage girl, and I can’t help thinking that maybe this novel coincides with her acquisition.

A recent cat portrait by Joyce Carol Oates.

 

In this novel, the story is told through two perspectives, Merissa Carmichael, a triple-A personality who’s been accepted early to Brown, and Nadia Stillinger, an insecure, curvy girl who’s been told she’s fat so many times that she now believes it (she’s five foot four and weighs 119 pounds at her heaviest). The unifying factor between these girls is that they were part of an inner circle that all received a last cryptic text from the boldest of them, Tink Traumer, before she committed suicide. The two different viewpoints didn’t really work for me. They felt uneven, but I guess the point of them is to show how Tink’s strength, ever after her death, helps these two girls when they are at their worst points and quite close to suicide to themselves.

Tink Traumer came to their school a few years earlier, a short, slight girl with an exotic past. Her mother is a television actress and very glamorous to Tink’s friends, and Tink herself was a child actress for several years on the same drama series as her mother. Now, Tink wants nothing to do with the world of acting and refuses to answer any questions about that time period. Tink’s not much to look at. She has red hair that she shaves off, is covered in freckles, and wears the same clothes day in and day out, but she makes up for that with her bravery. She’s a gifted artist and quite lippy, challenging teachers and adults when she feels it’s needed. Her friends are part of a popular clique, and all have their problems from the Perfect One, Merissa, whose home life is breaking apart and copes by cutting, to the weakest member, Nadia, who’s so eager for others to like her that she ends up sexually abused and the victim of cyberbullying.

 

Both Merissa and Nadia have strong fathers who only seem to care about their daughters as far as how much of a credit they are to them. Merissa’s father is proud of her prize-winning essay that’s posted on the Scientific American website, but he doesn’t have time to read it, and he’s thrilled that she’s won the coveted part of Elizabeth Bennet in the school theater production of Pride and Prejudice but doesn’t understand her reasons for quitting, or resigning her role, as Merissa puts it. Nadia’s father puts her in the best school possible—she’s nearly as recent as Tink to the high school—and her job is to not embarrass him. (She’s the baggage left over from his first marriage; he’s on his third now.) After a sexual experience happens that she doesn’t remember because she was drugged, Nadia is the subject of many rumors at school and is mercilessly harassed by the boys. She develops a crush on one of her teachers, Mr. Kessler, and after some bad decisions, her father is after him, accusing Mr. Kessler of something that he didn’t do. Nadia’s father doesn’t listen to his daughter; he just wants to punish what he perceives as a slight against him.

This isn’t a terrible book; I finished it. But I like Oates’s other young adult titles better. This just felt like a list of teen problems to me: suicide, check; cutting, check; and oh yeah, body image. I’m puzzled about what the novel’s big message is. The girl who is apparently the strongest in the clique commits suicide and then her spirit helps others who are having problems? Or is the message as simple as appearances are deceiving? I have no takeaway from the book. I reflected for a moment on cutting and body image, but the teens of today are coming up with their own solutions like the Butterfly Project and petitions to teen magazines to stop photoshopping models, making unrealistic images. I’m not sure that they would have much use for the girls presented in Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You.

Joyce Carol Oates and cat.