Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Them - Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates (1938-)

Out of the few Joyce Carol Oates books I have read I would not say this was my favorite. It seems like there are only two states her characters can occupy, being vibrantly awake or sleep-walking, which results in a lot of the book feeling somewhat aimless and dreamy.

The book centers around three members of a family, each trying to find their way, each battling the ogres of fate and buttressing their dreams against the chaos of reality. Each of them can see where they would like to be, who they would like to become, but the journey of getting there is one fraught with pain and heartache, yet they survive, because it's not that easy to die; even death is something that must be worked at, fought for and often remains illusive.

The protagonists, Loretta and her two children Jules and Maureen all try to rise above the poverty and trauma of life amidst the chaos and turbulence of the 1960's. Loretta begins life with a crazy, alcoholic father and a murderous brother. Loretta's life is irrevocable changed by circumstances outside her control and in an instant she becomes a different sort of person than she ever dreamed possible, slowly transforming into the belligerent housewife she previously despised. Loretta evolves from a thankful mousy young wife, to a loud, sweaty, perpetually housecoat wearing woman as she passes the baton of hope for a new life to her children.

Jules, the oldest son, knows from childhood that he is destined for greatness; that he belongs somewhere else other than the slovenly shanty he occupies with his family. He spends his childhood dreaming of escape. Lost in a world of fantasy, aloof from his family, unable to believe he shares anything in common with them. As he navigates the shifting world, his life is filled with false starts and broken dreams, always searching for love beneath the rubble, until he becomes obsessed with a woman fated to kill his love or kill him. But death is chimerical and instead Jules remains alive, lost in a dream, floating through the chaos of the Detroit riots, unseeing and unseen.

"He himself was a man inside a piece of rotten fruit - it kept getting in his mouth. The sky had a melony, overdone, orange-brown cast, a rotten cast to it, unmistakably...Jules walked along, he was like the invisible child he had tried to imagine himself years ago. But now he had become truly invisible..."

Jules searches endlessly for love, obsessed with an undefinable idea, a tangible thing, this always illusory love. He passionately devours those that find their way onto his path, always striving to obtain a certain something, a certain finality, a mutual understanding. At one point after finding a woman he believes to encompass all that he has searched for, to define what it is that for so long has been lost behind a myopic and dreamy world...they embark together for a new life. But his passion for her is too great, it terrifies her and as he physically becomes ill overcome by desire and eventually the flu, it leaves him lying in his own excrement in a putrid hotel room, while his dream girl vanishes and he lays there wondering if she ever truly existed.

Maureen has the most potential. She is quiet and studious, treating her scholastic duties as part of a sacrosanct ritual. She has been given the blessing of education and despite the chaos of her family, the dirty squalid apartment; her mother running around with different men, each having the potential to become a new father; despite he brother's constant disappearances and her sisters wild and raucous lifestyle always bordering of petty crime of some sort or another, Maureen studies. She dutifully makes dinner when her mother is comatose. She nurses her grandmother who is too sick and melancholy to look after herself. Her only fault is that she is too good. That she doesn't stand up for herself. That she doesn't escape soon enough like Jules.

When she does finally develop a plan of escape it catastrophically backfires and leaves her for a time split in two. Her hopes and dreams packing their bags and leaving for better pasture, while she sits in bed, no longer motivated to escape, no longer motivated to live. Waiting. Waiting for life to call her back, waiting for a hope or a dream to flutter its way back into her lifeless soul.

"The woman by the radiator gets to her feet. She is heavy, she seems pained when she stands: thick cream-colored fat-marbled old legs, veins cracking and rising to the surface, a woman of middle age. Oh, we women know things you don't know, you teachers, you writers, you readers of books, we are the ones who wait around libraries when it's time to leave, or sit drinking coffee alone in the kitchen; we make crazy plans for marriage but have no man, we dream of stealing men, we get off a bus and can't even find what we are looking for, can't quite remember how we got there, we are always wondering what will come next..."

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