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!
I’ve been a fan of Bryson’s since I was literally in middle school. My sisters and I listened to audiobooks together as a kind of collective bonding activity, especially during the rare moments during the summers when everyone was home from school, camp, work, and wherever else we were all constantly detained. A Walk in the Woods was one of our favorites, and I think I probably listened to it about 3.423 times. Not four, mind you – in fact, I doubt I ever finished it completely because whenever an errant sister returned from wherever she’d gone off to, we had to go back to the last place we’d all heard. Then there were some parts that were just lame, like any part where Bryson wasn’t doing dumb stuff in nature, so we eventually learned where those were and skipped those tapes. We listened to the bits we liked over and over, and the bits we particularly liked were the parts about Katz being an ass and saying “fuck” and Bryson being terrible at hiking. (I should mention that we were a hiking and camping family, as in *primitive* camping and hiking *for weeks.* We lived in a world where a child of ten could be trusted, even expected, to safely start a fire by themselves.)
That was the thing about A Walk In The Woods. There was some good info, particularly about the EPA, but the best part was listening to the author’s misadventures in Appalachia. Recently he’s departed somewhat from the personal approach, but in my opinion, that’s still his best writing.
It’s also my main objection to The Body: A Guide for Occupants. Bryson’s done a fine job with his research, especially for someone with no medical background, but there’s no hilarious personal experience here. It’s just a layperson’s rundown, punctuated by things about the human body that are baffling and unknown. Why do we sleep? Baffling! What does the appendix do? Unknown! Why do we need chromium? Baffling again! It’s a skim. The most interesting mysteries are left unexamined, and there’s not even any personal misadventures to distract us from those burning, unanswered questions.
I should mention that I listened to this book as an ALC I got from Libro.fm, my new bestest buddy on Earth. Because I’m a librarian and a Book Rioter, they’re giving me free advanced listener copies now, and because my commute consumes two hours of every single god-lovin’ weekday, I have plenty of time for listening. So listen I do! This is the first ALC I’ve tried, and I really do like the service. In my personal hagiography of book reading apps, it’s effectively competing with Libby and has blown Librivox clear out of the water.
Also, it allowed me to finish this book. If I didn’t chug through The Body in the car at double speed, I’d have stopped reading fifty pages in. It’s not that Bryson’s a bad writer. He’s still got it. The subject matter is interesting enough too. But this book has got very little of the funny above the level of incidentals and wordplay. It’s well-researched and entertaining enough for someone who knows practically nothing about their own horrifying body (vis a vis moi.) Still, I can’t help but wish I’d grabbed a newish Mary Roach instead. Incidentally, Bryson cites Roach twice and depends very much on other popsci and popmed nonfic as references. My reference librarian heart goes eehhhhhehhhhhhh.
Bryson is 66 years old now. Many of the people he discusses in the book, both historical figures and people of medical interest, have died around that age. Even though medical science will likely keep him alive for a good while yet, discussing death, as he does, appropriately, at the end, is a look straight in the face of the fact that human beings don’t last forever. I wonder how it felt for Bryson to pen this book. I know for a fact that it’d wig me out, and I’m still in my thirties. Here’s a story I’d have liked to read from this author: the body’s many fallacies and superpowers as seen through the lens of a well-regarded writer’s yet-distant but cresting mortality.
I’m not sorry that I got it. It’s a nice little repository of body trivia and now I know that you can actually put a catheter through your vein and guide it to all the way to your heart and actually touch your beating heart with it and your heart will not explode. Now off to give it a try!