Tuesday, February 11, 2020

A Fair Maiden: Joyce Carol Oates

I have a bone to pick with my librarian friends and it is this.  How is it that I have so many librarian friends and yet not one of them has taken me by the shoulders and shouted "Read Joyce Carol Oates now, you lazy cow!  She's the modern gothic queen that your heart has been craving!"  Some friends, I'll tell you what.

I came to JCO in the same way it appears other people have found her: by accident.  It starts innocently enough.  You decide that you're into thrillers, because they're the only thing that get your cold, bitter heart pumping.  Eventually you start to feel like the plots of the books are starting to blend together.  So you start to check out the "you may also like" section of the library or app or Goodreads, however you get your recommendations.  This is a risky business because sometimes the books or authors don't actually have very much in common except for a setting.  Sometimes "thriller" gets loosely defined as horror, or suspense, or hard boiled crime.  Listen, I'm not here for hard boiled crime.  Do not bring me bureaucratic procedurals or long courtroom dramas.  What I want are good storytelling, a narrative twist, and just enough cynicism that you can't tell which characters you're supposed to sympathize with.  Maybe a light murder, or a morally vague extortion.  You know, something uplifting!

I downloaded my first Joyce Carol Oates book of short stories,  The Doll Master, because it was short.  This may make you think that I'm lazy but the truth is that I had a huge backlog of podcasts and other things on my plate and I wanted something I could jump in and out of without having to remember any long narrative arcs or too many characters.  I wanted something I could read in two lunch breaks.  The Doll Master was the perfect fit.  Each story sucked you right into the action.  Not a lot of exposition or people whining about how their spouses don't understand them anymore.  Just BOOM, right into the dysfunction, much like a family Christmas when you show up and everyone's already two drinks deep.  I couldn't put this little book own.  When I finished, I knew that the next thing I wanted wasn't a podcast or a booooooooring work related video on the new PACER site.  I needed more JCO.

I picked A Fair Maiden almost at random for my next choice.  The blurb compared it to Lolita so I was wary, but also interested to read how the subject would be presented by a woman author.  I was fully prepared to jettison this book the second it turned into statutory rape porn.  You all know what I'm talking about.  An author will cover a taboo subject in such a way that makes it seem very appealing and glamorous.  I am delighted to report that this did not happen in A Fair Maiden.  This is a story about more than just an age difference.  Sure, that element is there.  You have your world weary teenager who has already figured out how to get whatever she wants from men, and you have your rich older man who has sexual designs on the teenager.  But this book is also about social class and family structure.  A 16 year old with a stable home life and parents who care, or a 16 year old who doesn't need to figure out how to pay for college or move away from her abusive cousin doesn't need to play dangerous games with much older men.

I've read some reviews where people complain that Katya the teenager and Marcus the rich old man are just character archetypes, but it worked for me.  Tropes exist for a reason, and in this case the tropes are largely true.  Rich old men can buy their way out of trouble and into whatever they want, and poor young women who've been exposed to sexual violence early on can compartmentalize feelings of danger and shame in order to survive.  If you think that sounds cynical, you're probably a dude and could learn from this book.

The teenager, Katya, is written so that she seems to have a pretty good grasp of how the world works on the surface, but underneath it all you see she's still a child and is driven by a desire to be loved and accepted.  She's shrewdly trying to calculate how much money she can get out of the wealthy Marcus and internally gloating about how she knows how to give men what they want to hear for her own benefit, but at the same time she really is persuaded by his over the top compliments and his grooming.  Because that is what he's doing, even while she's completely aware that it's happening. I think it makes her more vulnerable, because she starts to question if it's worth it to keep doing things that make her uncomfortable in exchange for the financial and emotional benefits.  I think knowing that she's underage and he's so much older and more socially respected makes her feel like he's the one who has everything to lose, so she has more leverage than she does.  I don't think it occurs to her that she could just be a teenager and do her nanny job and make friends her own age who aren't criminals.  Her own life experience is so limited that she thinks her only choices are between two men who seem different but who are very much the same.  She's comparing her life with two men, Choice A - to be forced to take drugs, beaten, and raped by someone who enjoyed causing physical and emotional pain, or Choice B - still given drugs and raped, but treated gently and with tenderness, and even benefitting financially.  Katya, you don't have to choose either of those idiots!  You can choose type C, a medium man.  Maybe he won't be rich and he spew romantic nonsense at you, but he also won't hit you or make you take drugs, and he'll believe in consent.  Also he will be age appropriate because my God, 68?  Katya, do better please. 

There were definitely a few moments of me wanting to squeeze my eyes tightly shut while reading this, not because the few sex scenes are graphic, but because JCO does a great job of writing Katya as someone who will push forward with a bad decision even while she's cringing with revulsion on the inside.  There's just so much cringing, even when everyone is fully dressed and out in public.  The few sex scenes in the book are brief and clouded over with literary writing, so I really don't understand reviewers who classify this as en erotic novel.  It's the OPPOSITE of an erotic novel. 

In fact, the weirdest and grossest theme of this book isn't the attraction a 68 year old has for a 16 year old, it's the way he sees himself and his place in the world, and his attitude that he can buy whatever he wants right up until the end.  There's another thread of this book that pulls it right into the gothic genre, that sort of deep atmospheric tension that lets you know more horrifying things are ahead, and this book goes right there. I won't spoil this bit, because it's what pulled the book into wonderfully weird territory and saved it from being just another book about an old dude who wants to sleep with teenagers.   You have youth, regret, mortality, violence, sexual longing, and even an element of fairy tale that make it an absurd read. Goodreads reviews are very polarized, but  I loved every minute of this book. 

The one criticism I read was that this book could have been shorter and had less internal dialogue.  I'd agree with that - teen angst is nothing new, and we get that point pretty quickly.  But then the book would have ended sooner.  As it is, I was left with many questions about Marcus, the rapist, and the people in his life who allow for his behavior.  Has he done this before to other girls?  The book alludes to other victims but never gets into his past.  He seems like someone who is beloved largely for his wealth but I'd like to know if he was a monster his entire life.  Sometimes you want to know if justice has been served, even if you don't really believe in justice. 

I'm not sure how to end a review about a book of this sort except to say that even if a teenager is considered worldly or engages in risky behaviors, that teen is still a child and does not deserve to be taken advantage of emotionally and ESPECIALLY not physically by a grown ass adult.  That is a CHILD, sir, she cannot consent, and paying her doesn't mean it's not still rape.  Unwanted touching!