Joyce Carol Oates is not a writer known to strike a reserved or distant tone. As her characters dream and bleed all over the page, she wields her prose like a steamroller, using its sheer force to pancake any objections to the hot-blooded, intimate sincerity of her fiction. Oates’ earnest empathy for her characters would thus never be mistaken for the clear-eyed, pitiless gaze of satire—and yet in her new novel My Sister, My Love, a fictional re-imagining of the story of the murdered child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey, Oates adopts a heavily satirical tone all the same.
The result is a strange hybrid of cultural parody and psychological realism, in which Oates’s broadly drawn characters gradually take on realistic emotional complexity, like paper targets on a shooting range coming to flesh-and-blood life.
In Oates’ novel, JonBenet Ramsey’s fictional stand-in is Bliss Rampike, a child ice skating champion who is found murdered in the basement of her Fair Hills, New Jersey home at the age of six. Though her death is the central event of the book, Bliss herself is hardly a character at all—she’s an empty-eyed ice skating zombie whose only emotion seems to be fear that she’ll disappoint her mother. And Betsey Rampike is by no means easy to please: she’s a raging horror of domineering mother, a faded beauty queen who pushes her tiny, preternaturally graceful child onto the ice solely because she so badly craves the spotlight for herself.
Betsey embodies a host of stage mom clichés—and her husband, the improbably-named Bix Rampike, is a central casting All-American alpha male, a free market Social Darwinist who places his CEO ambitions ahead of his family and flagrantly cheats on his wife. Their hometown of Fair Hills is just as predictably two-dimensional as the Rampikes themselves: it’s an absurd caricature of an upscale suburb, in which the greedy, shallow denizens of cookie cutter megamansions devote all their energies to social climbing, conspicuous consumption, and stabbing each other in the back.
This is extremely familiar territory for a contemporary American satirist: we’ve all heard about the materialism and conformity of the suburbs countless times before, and unsurprisingly Oates seems to have found very little new to add.
Given this backdrop of parody, it seems strange at first that the novel is narrated in the first person by Bliss’ brother Skyler, who claims to be attempting to create an absolutely honest account of what occurred on the night of his sister’s death. But it’s through Skyler’s narration that Oates begins to treat her characters more seriously—as people with real hopes and problems, rather than merely as two-dimensional targets of satire.
Skyler looks at Betsey and Bix as a young adult trying to find out who his parents really are: he takes them absolutely seriously, and cannot reduce them to mere caricatures. It’s through Skyler’s eyes, then, that we get a much more complex portrait of Betsey, and start to understand her fame-crazed monstrousness as having its origin in her unfulfilled longing for the love and respect that she’s never received from her family, her peers, or her philandering husband.
And when Skyler recounts his father’s fumbling and failed but absolutely genuine attempts to make connections with his needy, obsessive wife and his awkward and withdrawn nine-year-old son, it becomes clear that Bix has been spending all that time at the office at least in part because he doesn’t have a clue as to how to relate to the members of his own family, and is pained by his inadequacy. The Rampikes remain absurd people with laughable ambitions, but because Oates treats their emotional and psychological needs with complete seriousness, they become much more compellingly human.
It’s in this tension between the parodic and realistic elements of My Sister, My Love that the novel’s core ideas find their fullest expression. Oates reminds us that people like the Rampikes—or their inspiration, the Ramseys—are not merely media images, but actual people with real emotional needs.
When the Rampikes fail to find love and fulfillment in real life, they cling to false hopes and fantasy worlds in a desperate (and doomed) attempt to find happiness. This is why Betsey attempts to make a child star out of Bliss, and why Bix disappears into corporate climbing and meaningless affairs.
On the other hand, Skyler’s refusal to buy into his parents’ false hopes and illusions of closure ends up leaving him alone with his suffering and grief. In desperation, he turns to his spiritual adviser, Pastor Bob—an evangelical preacher with a dark past (and another clichéd character). But Bob refuses to help him, and instead makes a surprising confession: that he feels utterly helpless when faced with the “terrible, insatiable hunger” of all the lost souls who come to him to be saved.
The implication is that this kind of salvation simply isn’t possible—and that if Skyler hopes to avoid Betsey’s fate of becoming an empty caricature of a person, he’ll have to come to accept the inescapable fact of his pain.