Books

A Fair Maiden by Joyce Carol Oates

That Oates continues writing, year after year, is testament to her talent and our great luck to have this talent among us.


Publisher: Otto Penzler Books
Format: Hardcover
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Price: $22.00
Title: A Fair Maiden
Length: 160 pages
Publication Date: 2009-08

With the arrival of A Fair Maiden, Joyce Carol Oates has penned at least 50 novels. (I may have missed one, or two, or a dozen...) This count doesn’t include her short stories, anthologies, poetry, drama, essays, nonfiction, or young people’s works. Somewhere out there, somebody may have managed to read all of Oates’ oeuvre. If so, this is surely an achievement, and leaves little room for other reading.

Those who wonder how Oates manages such an output—a question that comes up as invariably as comments on Joan Didion’s preternatural slenderness—would be well disposed to read Greg Johnson’s Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. Johnson was generously granted tremendous access to Oates’ personal life and working methods. Her incredible publication rate, which she finds unremarkable, is due to the simple fact that she works constantly.

While you are agonizing over your writer’s block, surfing the net, or pairing socks, Joyce Carol Oates is writing. While you are shopping, arguing with your sweetheart, shoveling snow, or sleeping, Joyce Carol Oates is writing. While you are recovering from oral surgery, as I am, Joyce Carol Oates is writing: Johnson documents her, post wisdom-tooth surgery, stuffing her bleeding mouth with gauze and sitting at her typewriter. A week ago, bleeding from my own mouth, I recalled this anecdote and chastised myself as weak, unworthy, a mere wannabe. Then, anesthetized from pain medication and the remnants of Novocain, I passed out.

Though Oates’ massive productivity leads to occasional uneven output, A Fair Maiden, at only 165 pages, ranks as one of Oates’ stronger works, a brief excursion into the kind of suburban horror that lies beneath the most bucolic of beach towns, here, New Jersey’s Bayhead Harbor, a wealthy enclave of old and new money sunning themselves and getting tipsy in lavish yachts, trailed by housekeepers and nannies. The nanny in question here is Katya Spivak, of South Jersey, a pretty 16-year-old from a low-class family of gamblers and thieves.

Katya is painfully aware of her family’s shortcomings. She herself isn’t a thief, not yet. Instead, she is a lost teenager, not quite out of childhood, all too familiar with drugs and the groping, clumsy hands of South Jersey boys. She is especially fond of her cousin, Roy Mraz (Oates is mistress of apt character names), who, between prison stints, works in an auto repair shop. Katya’s mother is a gambler who is indifferent to her children; Katya’s father, Jude, came and went, though lately he hasn’t come around at all, leaving his pretty blond daughter ripe for exploitation.

Katya has found summer work with the Engelhardt family, acting as nanny to three-year-old Tricia and infant Kevin. She is attentive and hardworking, as attached to her young charges as she is disgusted with their parents, Lorraine and Max. But Bayhead Harbor is a welcome change from summer in grubby South Jersey.

One day on the boardwalk, as Katya pushes Kevin’s stroller and clutches Tricia’s hand, she is approached by 68-year-old Marcus Kidder, a man of great wealth whose family has summered in Bayhead for decades. He is alone, the owner of a fine old house in the best part of town. He charms Katya into tea, then into posing for a portrait: a man of many talents, Kidder can sing, play piano, paint, and once penned and illustrated a series of children’s books.

Yet when Katya questions him about his past, or the many drawings of women lining his studio, his charming manner deserts him. She learns little of this man who is soon stuffing her hands with crisp bills for the pleasure of making her portrait. The money, the elegant home, the flattering attentions are all intoxicating, until Kidder does two things: one predictable, the other not. I will divulge neither: suffice to say that while one will shock the reader, the other won’t.

The final portion of A Fair Maiden cannot be said to resemble reality. Katya calls on Roy Mraz for assistance that goes horribly awry, with unexpected results, only to have a final meeting with Kidder more reminiscent of a gothic novel than a contemporary exploration of what happens when a wealthy old man engages an innocent teenager. Yet Oates being Oates, the plot works.

Any would-be writer would be wise to study how this woman has etched a place for herself in American letters, with an immediately recognizable, unique prose style that manages to incorporate many of society’s most absorbing issues—Chappaquiddick, Marilyn Monroe, the Oakland County Killer (an individual who murdered several children in Oakland County, Michigan during the '70s, terrorizing the area. Both Oates and I lived there during the time The killer remains at large), JonBenet Ramsay, the disparity—and rage--between rich and poor, the right to die movement. That she continues to write, year after year, is testament to her talent and our great luck to have this talent among us.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.