This is true of my friend Josh. I’ve known him almost a year and in that time, he’s proven to be exactly what he seems: reticent, grumpy, unburdened by self-reflection. We’ve grown closer over time, but not because of some revelation on his part, but rather my increasing acceptance of his closed and quiet lifestyle.
Prolific American author Joyce Carol Oates seems much the same, a veritable desert cactus, albeit by way of upstate New York. At 76 years old, she is ugly in the delicate, refined way of a Victorian doll. Her blunt forehead, unsoftened by bangs, is yanked tightly back, her dead-center part the last touches on a veritable schoolmarm. She makes no small talk and seems smugly satisfied with the audience’s wearisome questions, for though they bother her, they serve to reinforce her superior sense of self.
Standing in the unforgiving light on the U Book Store’s second floor, Oates enters late, with a small entourage, and selects at random a passage from her latest book, “The Sacrifice.”
“I always read from the fourth chapter,” she says. “Let’s try something new.”
For the next 45 minutes, the audience, trapped by courtesy and predisposed for respect, is subjected to a brutal tale of a young black girl, the victim of an alleged rape. The chapter drums on into infinity, but instead of a soft, steady beat created by stretched cow’s skin and hickory stick, Oates manages to brutalize the smooth surface of the drumhead with a serrated knife while still keeping time. The perspective of the girl, the girl’s mother, the detective, the other detective, the bystander, the doctor, the other doctor -- the same story parsed a thousand and one times until the audience is rendered totally numb. Finally, long after her voice and my soul have tired, she reaches the last line of the chapter and we are set free.
The book, she explains, was inspired both by the 1967 Newark riots and the 1987 case of Tawana Brawley, a young woman who faked her own rape. As Oates lived through these historical moments, race relations and the scene on the streets seemed incomprehensible. She shied away from the gritty reality, a white-washed academic fearful of drowning in the cultural turmoil surrounding her. Three years ago, however, when she first started drafting “Sacrifice,” she decided she understood the situation, the black experience, better, and decided to cash in on the wrinkled, time-worn gift of hindsight.
Since the book’s publication this year, Oates has attempted to channel her hollow attempt at advocacy into non-fiction outlets. Most recently, in an op-ed for The Boston Globe, she describes an incident in the early 90s when the driver of her limousine was racially profiled on the New Jersey turnpike.
“Is white racism a kind of toxic cloud that drifts over our country, invisible to many or most white-skinned citizens but terrifyingly visible to the black and brown-skinned?” she begins, swiftly answering her own question with a resounding yes. The media, the police, the lawmakers, she takes a swipe at each, cutting others deep, while subjecting herself to only the most superficial acts of self-reflection.
Though Oates acknowledges herself as complicit in the horror of contemporary life of people of color, she is ultimately absolved. Convinced of the uniqueness of her empathy and the skillful way she has imbued her humanity in her work, she ends her low-stakes tale of profiling and privilege with this: “[‘The Sacrifice’] is a way of bearing witness if only at a remove, through the shared sympathies of fiction.”
This conclusion is ironic in light of her obvious interpersonal prickliness and clear preference for the tiny worlds she creates over the one 7 billion of us are forced to share. The value of fiction, of compassion in any form, is clear, but what does it matter if it is wholly removed from reality? I am not the only one asking these questions, probing the depths of Oates’ psyche and her text, yet I have only seen positive reviews of her newest novel. “The Sacrifice,” it seems, is a literary feat, if not for its content, than for its exacting prose.
We can trust that, whatever the final analysis on Oates’ politics, or privilege, she is always good for a story. But unlike with my friend Josh, I can’t accept Oates as she is. Were she a different person, with a different sensibility, I might feel differently. But so long as she insists on the sufficiency of being engaging, but not engaged, I will continue to turn to other, more open and earthly authors.
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