Review! That! Book! PURSUIT by Joyce Carol Oates

Happy Black Friday, guys! The nice thing about being a book person on this questionable day is that you can really just buy books online if you want to take advantage of deals. You could even spend the day reading what you already have and decline to participate in the annual sensationalized commercial frenzy that smacks of classism and exploitation of the poor. Or, you could read my scintillating thoughts on the work of Joyce Carol Oates’s newest book, Pursuit.

I’ve been reading JCO since I was just a wee lass in the ninth grade. I have very positive memories of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang and later Zombie: A Novel. Apparently, I didn’t rate either of them very highly on Goodreads, though. I wish I knew why. They’ve really stuck with me, but maybe I had some of the same problems I had with Pursuit.

This book presents us with Abby, real name Miriam, whose parents, Lew and Nicola, disappeared when she was a kid. Right from the get-go, she’s got some very odd trauma, which causes her enough mental distress that she wanders out in front of a bus. Coincidentally, (I’m sure,) she had just gotten married. This is the story of how Abbey/Miriam discovers what happened to her parents and why she’s in such distress.

Bad Guys Get Pages

This book didn’t dwell as entirely on the bad guy as Zombie did, but it sure did dwell nonetheless. The longest stretches of the story were from the twisted perspective of Abby’s father. This wasn’t necessarily a bad choice. It was certainly very entertaining. I think that what irritated me about it was how predictable Lew was. He was every scary thing: stalker, violent misogynist, addicted, jealous, murderous, delusional, untreated for his mental health problems, religious nut, probably a pedophile.

The only thing he didn’t have was a mustache to twirl and any real depth. Ultimately, Lew was just a mashup of male killer greatest hits and almost entirely defined by his relationship to the main character’s mother. There’s no reason that someone this cartoonish couldn’t be a villain, but if you’re going to write someone so over-the-top, you’d better have a good foundation for them. I have to believe it. I didn’t believe this.

Foil the Patriarchy!

At the same time, Oates goes out of her way to present Willem, Abby’s husband, as the ideal man. He’s sensitive, kind, gentle, patient – my goodness, everyone needs a Willem. But ultimately this makes him as two-dimensional as Lew. They’re obviously meant to be foils, but Willem doesn’t really function well in this role. He’s not really a very interesting dude, and anyway, he doesn’t really appear much compared to Lew.

I did wonder if Oates was trying to not-all-men this story by setting up Willem as an example of the fact that good guys exist. Theoretically, I’m into it, but Willem is even flatter than Lew! This dynamic would probably have required a bit more subtlety than a five-hour listen could convey, and because I know that Oates is capable of it, the slipshod nature of the Lew-Willem contrast really struck me as lazy.

OK, then Criticize the Patriarchy!

Oates does a good job of showing the patriarchy rather than just railing about it, as I tend to do once I wind up. Willem’s family is a good vehicle for patriarchal oppression, but I am also a sucker for well-meaning but toxic religious families in literature. Toxic masculinity suffuses the book as a theme, with Willem being an example of a good guy and Lew, of course, being an example of everything not to do or be. Abby/Miriam is a nice representation of a woman who upholds the patriarchy by maintaining silence to protect a man, which is, of course, a topical point. She’s also kind of a poster child for repressed and damaged femininity, literally haunted by the effects of the patriarchy.

The self-abuse and repression that she heaps upon herself to try and become this “good girl” she thinks she isn’t is very thickly laid. I liked it to a certain extent because I could relate to it, but it definitely didn’t strike me as the performance of a subtle literary virtuoso. As with Lew and Willem, I felt like Abby was the coloring book version of a good statement about overcoming the patriarchy. The outlines were great, but in practice, it turned out kind of flat.

Nicola is a piece of the feminist pie, too: the classic Woman Who Does It All, whose aggressor is a character who could be an incel parody. There’s a really excellent statement the be made here about how generations of women relate to one another in a patriarchal environment, not to mention how men sort themselves into ally or enemy categories in a polarized environment as reactions to empowered or helpless women. I think it’s interesting that Nicola, who becomes empowered, incites rage on the part of her partner, while Abby/Miriam becomes completely disabled emotionally and physically and thereby inspires extreme support and protectiveness from Willem.

I’m not sure Oates intended to suggest that bitches get stitches while violets get princes, but that was definitely what I came away with. Maybe it was meant to be ironic, or just a face-forward statement about what kinds of women men like.  Maybe it was meant to be a statement about damage and how women and men need to come together to repair the past.

But What A Bone Structure!

Regardless of her relative ability to discuss feminism through the medium of a thriller, Oates can structure the hell out of a novel. Despite the story jumping between several different points of view, times, and situations, I never once lost the thread. That’s why I’m going to come down on the positive side for this book after all. It’s effectively a feminist thriller, and although I don’t think it’s the smartest thing Oates has ever written, I don’t think she meant it to be an intelligent treatment of male violence and female victimhood. I think it was just supposed to be entertaining.

So if you want a dark, entertaining book with a scary villain, a damaged heroine, and a kinda half-baked feminist message that works if you blur your eyes and squint at one corner of it, then Pursuit is probably perfect for you. Read and enjoy. It’s short enough to hold you over the weekend plane or train ride back home from the holidays.

May your families be healthier by far than Nicola and Lew’s. Happy Holidays, feminists!

 


Happy Thanksgiving…Zombies.

It’s turkey time! Around this time of year, when debate turns to the possibility of zombies freezing solid, I like to throw a few dried femurs on the fire and ponder life’s great questions. This year, I’m wondering just how wide zombification has spread in literature. There’s Jane Eyre, of course. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, oh my.

I have to admit, although I’m generally not a big fan, I did like Austen with lurching corpses. From the amazing Anna Rettberg

Then there’s an entire army of zombie Christmas books. Twas the Zombie Night Before Christmas: A Zombie Kids Book, a heartwarming tale of how we hung up the stockings and “ate every mouse,” meets It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Zombies!: A Book of Zombie Christmas Carols, a collection of undead holiday chestnuts fit for an Addams Family Christmas. Or, you know, a pretty good prank on the neighborhood for a fun-loving group of social anarchists.

Don’t forget the Zombies Christmas Carol, because Marvel Zombies: The Complete Collection Volume 1 wasn’t hilarious enough when it was fresh. (Poor Spider-Man. Truly, we have all eaten someone we loved in one way or another.) A Zombie Christmas: The Mike Beem Chronicles Volume One appeals because you should always help others at the holidays even with an apocalypse on.

Then there’s my personal favorite, a sequel of the oddly compelling Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament entitled I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus: A Breathers Christmas Carol. Any zombie fan who hasn’t read Breathers is cheating themselves, by the way. It’s a lovely book about community, sacrifice, and secretly eating your parents to preserve your way of life. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll examine your prejudices against the living dead.

Image result for breathers zombie fan art

There’s another primary cover now, but it’s kinda lame. I like this one.

But what about the Thanksgiving zombies? Well, there’s another Mike Beem book, A Zombie Thanksgiving: The Mike Beem Chronicles Volume Five, as well as Zombie Thanksgiving: A YA Paranormal Story and Gobble: A Thanksgiving Novelette of the Zombie Apocalypse. But that appears to be it.

This is weird, right? Zombies are the ultimate symbols of overconsumption, specifically of a consumption style that’s actively driving life on Earth into the ground. I can see why Christmas would evoke zombie tales aplenty – not only is it a very popular holiday, but the rabid, unremitting waste of the season is basically its own apocalypse. The metaphor’s not much of a stretch, is what I’m saying.

But Thanksgiving is, if anything, more food-focused. Why aren’t zombies more of a thing in November? The parallels are uncanny.

  • The month starts slow. A few of the early infected begin to consume pumpkin spice and baked goods in quantity. Smart survivor types begin to stockpile food while it’s still cheap.
  • Innocuous news reports about odd eating behaviors abound.
  • As the month comes to a head, enormous numbers of people begin to travel. This is not unlike the zombie survivor’s futile flight from the plague, which only follows them because it is already endemic everywhere.
  • No matter how prim you may be normally, you rip into a 3,000-calorie Thanksgiving dinner like you’ve never seen food before. You’re not consuming to survive, you’re consuming to consume. You are a zombie.
  • Holdouts are cranky loners.
  • Everyone becomes an eating machine in the end.

The zombie narrative is comforting in many of the same ways that a cozy mystery is comforting. There’s a structure, a plot that follows certain traditions, and usually a posse where characters fill certain roles. To a great extent, it doesn’t matter if the zombies win or the people win. (Although most of my experience suggests that people usually triumph in these stories.) The point isn’t the zombies – they’re the window dressing of our collective Jungian neuroses. The point is that it’s a comfortable pattern. And isn’t that what Thanksgiving is about, too?

It’s an odd holiday. People complain about it, but love it too. How like my own relationship with the zombie novel. As rote and repetitive as they can be, and as low as I find the literary quality of certain zombie stories, I keep coming back over and over again for that feeling of safety that I get when the first revenant reanimates inside of a zipped-up body bag. Maybe that makes me a bit of a zombie for zombie books. So be it.

Happy holidays, fellow shamblers. For just one day, let’s indulge without guilt. After all, there’s a certain bliss in being part of the horde.

Featured image from GirlZombieAuthors! Give them a look!


Haunted by Central New York

I originally came from a small town in central New York. Cows outnumbered people approximately three to one, rural values dominated, and it’s fair to say that I left as soon as I could drive. I went to college in central New York, then grad school, and got my first job there. The place continued to not work for me, and about eight years ago, I moved to Massachusetts.

Weirdly, since I moved here, I’ve encountered several books that make me nostalgic for home. Not that they make me want to move back – I spent 25 years trying and failing to be a good fit for CNY – but because they terrify me. They’re frightening in the same way that I used to associate with some of the small towns I’d drive through on my way to work, and then also frightening in the way that I used to feel when people would tell me, without affectation or agenda, that I’d be back. Because everybody came back. That was just the way New York was.

I cannot describe the dread I’d feel when people would say this to me. It always felt prophetic. Reading home – specifically, reading horror about New York State – feels a lot like daring fate. Or pondering a return. It’s hard to say. I don’t know why the concept of living in a place that scares me is somehow so comforting.

My first experience of reading home was The Twilight Zone: Complete Stories. Little-known fact: Ron Serling may have based the show upon his upbringing in the Syracuse area. You can really see it in this collection, some of which were adapted and some of which weren’t. It’s…uneven in quality. By today’s standards for science fiction, anyway. Part of the problem is that what was fresh when Serling wrote these is now old hat. Maybe I’d be more impressed 40 years ago. But the eerie quality that carries them all is as spine-tingling as anything from Clive Barker, or so it seems to me. That sense that the rest of the world might be a myth or a delusion, that your neighbors could turn on you if the snow lasts a day too long, that you’re the alien is palpable in my childhood home. It’s a weird place and weird stuff happens there. If you’ve ever seen My Brother’s Keeper, then you know of Munnsville. It’s literally just a couple towns over from where I grew up.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. Mr. Splitfoot took my breath away with its treatment of mystic cults, restless ghosts, and asteroid strikes upstate. I think I was lukewarm about this book when I first read it, but I may need to read it again. I’ve been thinking about it for years. The plot revolves around a pregnant woman whose horrible lover tries to slip abortion drugs into her food, prompting her to follow her long-lost aunt on a pilgrimage to a mysterious house in the woods of the northern foothills. Believe it or not, it gets stranger. I loved it. Part of the action took place in Troy, for goodness sake. I skated in a roller derby bout there once.

Did Mr. Splitfoot appeal to me because I recognized the place names or because it pinned the haunting nature of the place where I grew up? It’s hard to say. I’m certainly haunted by central New York now. One of the central themes that I noticed in this particular book was that it was impossible to tell who was the ghost and what, exactly, was doing the haunting. At times, it seemed like the living were haunting the dead, that the dead were being haunted by their pasts, and that New York was haunting everybody.

Finally, did you know that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow takes place in New York?

Because of course it does.

In case you’re curious, Sleepy Hollow is here. So it’s not far upstate, but I count it because the easy, immediate way that Ichabod Crane loses touch with reality doesn’t strike me as superstition. I like to read the story as an examination of an intellectual man trying to escape the appetites and desires of his baser half, which eventually attacks the very thing that makes him superior – his imaginative mind – and makes it so he’s never heard of again.

I can relate to the fear of being erased, tracked down by a part of yourself that you want to dominate and instead falling prey to it. It is reminiscent of the person I was back home – angry, isolated, and steeped in my issues with nothing to do about it but pace around my snowbound living space. Sometimes I feel like that paranoid way of being is constantly riding behind me, and if I look at it too closely, it’ll attack. Maybe it’ll replace me after all. Is that what I’m running away from? And will I make it to the covered bridge on time?

It’s past Halloween, and therefore past the time of year when we can have fun being frightened. Now comes the really scary time of the year: the cold months. Even ensconced in our modern comforts, life is a little less certain when the snow starts to come down. You could skid on ice and crash. You could run out of food in a freak snowstorm. You could get snowed in on the highway without a sleeping bag.

So I do the New York things that remind me of home. I put on snow tires. I stock up on food in case we get a bad storm. I pack a down sleeping bag in my trunk.

I pack a copy of Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber. And I don’t look over my shoulder.