Rewriting Detective Fiction: Towards an Understanding of Oates’s Enigmatic Hybrid

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Author on an Interminable Quest

The first studies of Oates’s work depicted an author obsessed with the problematic notion of the self and the inner life, constantly reworking her themes as if the key to transcendence and personal well-being lay in an understanding and acceptance of the enigmatic self/other dichotomy. This criticism was based on the artistic aesthetic evoked by Oates’s published writing, for the most part her fiction and collections of critical essays. In 2007, an invaluable tool became available to Oates readers with the publication of her Journal. Though she claims the journal was not written to be read, even by herself, as a journal reader (she mentions reading the journals of Plath, Woolf and Cheever, among others) she was certainly aware of the tendency towards publication of noted individuals’ journals and might have reasonably foreshadowed the same fate for her own. However, if we choose to give the author the benefit of the doubt, we can see in her Journal a faithful portrayal of certain facets of her unique self. The final paragraph of her preface, dated February 2007, asserts:
The act of writing in a journal is the very antithesis of writing for others. The skeptic might object that the writer of a journal may be deliberately creating a journal-self, like a fictitious character, and while this might be true, for some, for a limited period of time, such a pose can’t be sustained for very long, and certainly not for years. It might be argued that, like our fingerprints and voice ‘prints,’ our journal-selves are distinctly our own; try as we might, we can’t elude them; the person one is, is evident in every line; not a syllable can be falsified. At times the journal-keeper might even speak in the second person, as if addressing an invisible “you” detached from the public self: the ever-vigilant, ever-scrutinizing “inner self” as distinct from the outer, social self. As our greatest American philosopher William James observed, we have as many public selves as there are people whom we know. But we have a single, singular, intractable, and perhaps undisguisable “inner self” most at home in secret places. (JJCO xiv).

The Fossil-Seeker and the Tight-Rope Walker: Anachronistic Characters

Gilbert Erskine commits suicide by jumping into The Falls in chapter one. Chapter three, “The Fossil-Seeker,” appropriately goes back in time to present Gilbert’s thoughts as he hurries from the hotel. “Run for your life” is the refrain that carries Gilbert forward throughout the chapter and reminds us, paradoxically, that he is actually on his way to end his life. Two existential questions haunt Gilbert. One has to do with the nature of man’s (and by inclusion his own) place in the universe, the other with his own sexuality. Both man of God and man of science, Gilbert has been unable to reconcile these two modes of existence and come to any definite conclusion about whether or not life has meaning and what his place in the universe should be. Attracted to fossils – “like mysterious artworks they were” (TF 29) – from a young age, Gilbert refuses to accept both the religious viewpoint “that the Devil had planted so-called fossils in the earth to mislead mankind” and the scientific premise of evolution (TF 30). As a result, he has no dogma to serve as his anchor, but lives in a constant state of confusion and denial:
And yet: could it be true that ninety-nine percent of all species, flora and fauna, that have ever lived have become extinct, and that species are passing into extinction continuously? Daily? Why did God create so many creatures, only to let them fight frantically with one another for existence, and then to pass into oblivion? Would mankind disappear too, one day? Was this God’s plan? (TF 30) He is unable, or unwilling, to step back from the literal interpretation and read “the Book of Genesis as a Hebrew version of a Grimm’s fairy tale” (TF 18).
As for the more intimate matter, though Gilbert does not refer to himself as a homosexual,97 his reflections clearly point to such an interpretation. He acknowledges that his parents were desperate for him to marry for “possibly they worried about his manhood?” (TF 32). Consummating his marriage to Ariah is a grotesque, nightmarish experience for Gilbert – “Was this Ariah Littrell the minister’s spinster daughter? […] The bared gums, damp exposed teeth. A ragged swath of rust-colored hairs between her clutching thighs. She was ugly to him, repulsive” (TF 36) – and makes him feel that he has betrayed his friend D. whom he admits to loving: “I can’t love any woman, God help me I’ve tried. I can only love you” (TF 29). Gilbert can neither find solutions to his problems, nor reconcile himself to living with them and so he can only think of releasing himself from misery. As he runs towards Terrapin Point, however, it becomes apparent that the spiritual part of his personality is already dead. It was effectively extinguished at the moment of his sexual relations with Ariah, the moment which epitomizes his betrayal of D. Indeed, even before he climbs over the railing and falls into the spray, he is described as no longer “in life”: “In a gesture of which he’d never have been capable in life he seized his glasses and flung them into space” (TF 38). Gilbert’s episode opens the novel with both a literal and a metaphorical fall to death. Lacking the courage to insist upon searching for a meaning to his existence, he has no other choice but to leave it behind.

The Green-Eyed Woman: Sheer Will Against the Pull of Time

Ariah and Dirk initially appear to be counterweights to the instability of such characters as Gilbert and the reclusive Claudine. They each initially appear as sane, well-rounded individuals. Ariah plays the role of the young, worried spouse, then, once her husband’s body has resurfaced, takes her independence from her family and goes back to her life as a music teacher. Dirk, for his part, is lucid about his relationship with his overbearing mother.100 He realizes that his privileged position is basically a question of luck and tries not to think of himself as anyone too special. Both are successful in their careers. In spite of their individual successes, the two find increased meaning for their lives once they fall in love. Yet, happy as they are, neither of them is spared the nagging reflections about life’s meaning for long. Indeed, Oates does not seem to believe that eternal happiness is a reasonable aspiration. In response to the question “Do you think it’s possible for humans to be happy?” in an interview about The Falls she responded in the negative: “Not deliriously happy – not for long. To be reasonably content for durations of time, seeing that life is an ongoing drama, should be enough!”101
Recently released from the hospital after the birth of her first child, Ariah asks her husband: “‘I mean what has brought us, the three of us, to this place? And this moment? Out of all of the universe, and an infinity of time?’” to which he offers the response “Love,” which prompts further musings on the nature of this ephemeral emotion: “Ariah continued, frowning, ‘Love isn’t less a force in life than gravity, is it? You can’t see ‘gravity’ either.’” (TF 143) After Juliet’s birth, Ariah reflects to Dirk that they are now “safe” because they have three children: He considered her words. “Now we’re safe.” What did this mean? Was this the basic principle of domestic life, of the terrible need to propagate one’s kind? The human wish, as in a fairy tale, to live longer than one’s lifetime, through one’s children. To live longer than one is allotted, and to matter. To matter deeply, profoundly to someone.
Not to be alone. To be spared the possibility of knowing oneself, in aloneness. (TF 188-189).

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Range of Human Experience: Dreams and Psychological Reality

The juxtaposition of highly realistic passages with others that much more resemble flights of fancy is an important characteristic of Oates’s fiction. However, it is not one that has been consistently accepted and understood. Readers have been disconcerted by the structure and language of long Oates novels such as The Falls which begin in the past, using fairy-tale or mythological language and gradually giving way, as the plot chronologically rejoins the present, to a language more resembling realism.128 This is a problem which has plagued the reception of Oates’s work since the beginning of her career as scholars such as Rose Marie Burwell have pointed out. In an article about Oates’s early novel A Garden of Earthly Delights, Burwell counters critics who lament the melodramatic nature of the denouement by focusing on the philosophical nature of Oates’s realism, a realism “of a metaphysical brand that recognizes among first principles the existence of real evil – not the sentimentalized social evils of Steinbeck and Dreiser – but the ubiquitous, gratuitous evil potential in all human relations.”129 Indeed, Oates’s realism must be understood in terms of unconscious, emotional response rather than as the expression of cold, hard fact. How is one to understand a novel that seems to operate in different sections on such incongruous levels? For the author, these different levels are not at all incompatible. This formula mirrors the way, in Oates’s view, the difference between past and present is actually experienced in real life. In her essay “On Fiction in Fact” she explains that “the truth of one era becomes, as if by an artist’s sleight of hand, the mythology of subsequent eras.”130 Thus, it seems that the past can This is how Oates describes the structure of her nobel in a 14 August 2007 interview with John Mullan for The Guardian book club. She is adamant that the work is not a naturalistic, realistic novel.
Oates’s conception of the problematic nature of our relationship to time can help explain the reference to philsophical ideas that may be noticed throughout her fiction. She writes in a review of Walker Percy’s Lancelot that “no genuine writer of fiction need rely upon philosophical ‘ideas,’” claiming it is enough for Percy to be “wonderfully alive to the sounds and textures and odors of life.”131 However, it has already become evident through the opening discussion of Oates’s journal entries and the first sections of this chapter on The Falls that in Oates’s world philosophical musings are an inherent component of the “textures” of life. In addition to the incessant existential questioning of her characters, Oates occasionally mentions the theories of actual philosophers. One of these is the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) who developed a theory of knowledge that corresponds to the problematic dichotomy between past and present to be found in Oates’s works. In Schopenhauer’s philosophy, one can only ever know the present. In an essay entitled “On the Vanity of Existence” he explains: “Our existence has no foundation on which to rest except the transient present. Thus its form is essentially unceasing motion, without any possibility of that repose which we continually strive after.”132 This concept is rendered in Oates’s work by an instability of meaning that will become more and more apparent in subsequent sections.
Also in “On Fiction in Fact” Oates insists on the problematic nature of language when put to work in an attempt to communicate past experience: “In any case, language by its very nature tends to distort experience. With the best of intentions, in recalling the past, if even a dream of the previous night, we are already altering – one might say violating – the original experience, which may have been wordless and was certainly improvised.”133 This insistence on the problematic nature of language recalls the work of another philosopher alluded to by Oates, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who believed that our difficulty in deciphering the world around us was intricately related to our problematic understanding of the workings and limits of language. Wittgenstein argued that some things can only be “shown,” and not “said,” such as ethics, aesthetics, religion and “problems of life.” “In Wittgenstein’s view such matters,” A. C. Grayling explains, “are not themselves ruled out as nonsensical; it is only the attempt to say anything about them which is so”; they belong to the realm of the mystical.134 Oates’s adherence to such philosophical ideas combined with her desire to explore the emotional and unconscious realms contributes to the legitimacy of a project to employ different aesthetic modes to communicate different realms of experience.

Table of contents :

0.1 Overview of Critical Assessment of Oates’s Work
0.1.1 Oates Criticism: The First Wave (1978-1980)
0.1.2 Second Wave of Oates Criticism: The Middle Years (1987-1998)
0.1.3 Oates Criticism in the Twenty-First Century
0.2 Crime and Maturity
0.2.1 Choosing a Corpus
0.2.2 Content Outline
Introduction: The Mystery of Human Emotions
1.0.1. Author on an Interminable Quest
Chapter I The Falls: The Case of the Well-Meaning Family
1.1.1. Questing Self, Questioning Characters The Fossil-Seeker and the Tight-Rope Walker: Anachronistic Characters The Green-Eyed Woman: Sheer Will Against the Pull of Time Hope For the Next Generation: EROSION TIME . . .
1.1.2. Relationships: Problem or Solution? Husbands and Wives Parents and Children Children and Others
1.1.3. Range of Human Experience: Dreams and Psychological Reality From Fairy Tale to Reality Visions, Myths, Legends Relativity of Evil
Chapter II The Tattooed Girl: The Case of the Girl No One Knew
1.2.1. Phantasmagoria of Personality At the Point of Metamorphosis Eyes That Do Not See
1.2.2. The “Night Side” of Our Lives
1.2.3. Change and Redemption
Chapter III Beasts: The Case of the Girl Who Got What She Wanted
1.3.1. Unreliable Eye/I
1.3.2. Problematic Nature of Desire
1.3.3. Power of Life and Death Fire Imagery
Rape: A Love Story: The Bewildering Case of the Missing Meaning
1.4.1. Why? The Unanswerable Question
1.4.2. Why? The Difficulty of Being Believed Is Justice Achieved?
1.4.3. The Question of Love
Chapter V “Phrases of Silence”: Textual Devices
2.5.1. The Disorienting Catalyst
2.5.2. Italics and Inner Thoughts
2.5.3. Repetition
2.5.4. Dashes and Ellipses
Chapter VI “Links” Between “Events”: The Mysteries of Interconnectivity
2.6.1. Inferring Meaning, or Establishing “Links”
2.6.2. Jumbled Narrative Structure Absent Signposting Flashbacks
2.6.3. Communal Narration
Chapter VII Liminal States; Questions of Identity: Caught Between Haunting Past and Unknowable Future
2.7.1. Spectrality
2.7.2. Spectre and Hantise
2.7.3. Borderline States
2.7.4. “Phantoms”
2.7.5. The Fantastic: A Borderline State
2.7.6. Shadows
Chapter VIII Todorov’s Typology as Template: Tool for Initial Analysis of Oates Corpus
3.8.1. Classic Detective Story Structure: Two Competing, Yet Complementary, Story Lines Rape: A Love Story and The Falls
3.8.2. Thriller Structure: One Story Line, Different Reader Interest Beasts and The Tattooed Girl The Mystery Element
3.8.3. Themes/Discourse Justice Deadline: Crippling Effects of Lack of Knowledge Delicious Rottenness Nemesis Absence of Supernatural
3.8.4. Suspense Story
Chapter IX Detection, Detecting and Detectives
3.9.1. Social Function of Detective Fiction
3.9.2. Oates’s Detectives: Reversing Traditional Roles Hard-Boiled Seeker of Justice Unreliable, Purely Selfish Motives Amateurs, Unwittingly Forced Into Role Absent
Chapter X Violence and Identity
3.10.1. Palmer’s Hero and Conspiracy Legitimacy of Violence Distinctiveness of Tone Opacity of Point of View
3.10.2. Symons’ Theory of Sensational Literature Convey Psychological Truths, Investigate Human Personality
3.10.3. Intimate Relationship to Violence
Chapter XI Rewriting Detective Fiction: Towards an Understanding of Oates’s Enigmatic Hybrid
3.11.1. Thriller as Parody of Classic Detective Fiction
3.11.2. Refunctioning: Margaret Rose’s Concept of Parody
3.11.3. Return to Roots: Oates and Poe
3.11.4. An Inherently Malleable Genre
Conclusion: An Empire of Enigma


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