There are moments when even the most jaded and experienced reader of serious epic dramatic literary fiction might feel the pages of a new book glowing and expanding their notions of what they might expect to receive from a contemporary novel. Before we look at those particular moments, let’s think about the intimidation factor. Readers of Oates understand that the ride through her expansive and exhausting canon over the past 55 years is bumpy, perilous, dark, gothic, and filled with families brooding over actions that caused irreparable harm. Her women are fully realized independent agents of desire, power, lust, and fate. Her men wander through her stories and novels as manipulators, submissives, power brokers, and means to an end.
The option of sampling Oates’s novels (let alone her scores of short stories) in small doses is always there, but that’s a loser’s game. A reader can start with her latest offering (and one will never be at a loss for options), but the tight and polished control Oates demonstrates from her opening scenes to the end require the reader’s commitment. Consider the monumental world-building Oates has developed through fictional upstate New York locales in novels and stories too numerous to mention and how it’s matched only by the fierce determination of her characters. Oates has populated her novels with all manner of people, but it’s her women that resonate strongest with any reader, longtime devotees or first-timers.
In her latest novel,
My Life as a Rat, Violet Rue Kerrigan is the seventh (and last) child of an Irish-Catholic family where loyalty is valued above and beyond everything. Violet is the light in her father’s eyes, a short-tempered patriarch who cannot and will not see the truth about some of his children. Oates begins her story in 1991. Violet is 12-years-old. She witnesses her older brothers (Jerome and Lionel) disposing of the weapon they’d used to beat (and kill) 17-year-old Hadrien Johnson, an African-American teen.
It’s the spark that ignites her impulsive testimony to the police. Lionel assaults her, Violet testifies to the truth as she saw and knew it, and it starts over a decade of exile and isolation. Violet testified. Violet became a rat. Her life as she knew it (proud youngest daughter of the Kerrigan clan) was over.
What we know from a premise like this is that it would be nothing and go nowhere without location and atmosphere, and Oates has always been a master when it comes to connecting her characters with the seductive lure of their surroundings. Violet has no choice but to uproot herself after she is sent to live 80 miles away with an aunt in upstate New York. She thinks about her plight:
“No matter how far I came to live from the Niagara River, it has gotten into my dreams… The river is turbulent like a living thing shivering inside its skin. Miles from the thunderous falls like a nightmare that calls… Strife and suffering are absolved here!“
The voice in this novel shifts from third to first person as we read Violet telling her story, and it can initially prove confusing. Eventually, however, it becomes clear. We are following Violet (not coincidentally referred to in some dialogue as “Vio-let”, a variation of “Violent”) from the initial stages of her family unravelling once Jerome and Lionel are charged and convicted of Johnson’s murder. Violet’s mother becomes more religious, appearing at church in full public view with her red-lipstick mouth that “stood out like a cutout mouth in her pale, fleshy face…” Rumors swirl around the town “…like rotted leaves in the wind… A plague of rumors and a stink of rumors…” Before Violet’s first excursion into a world outside her immediate family, Oates paints a picture of a family ruled by a father prone to unexpected and cruel acts of violence against his children:
“That is the sick, melancholy secret of the family — you shrink in terror from a parent’s blows, and yet, if you are not the object of the blows, you swell with a kind of debased pride.”
Violet’s brothers are charged, convicted, and sentenced, largely based on her testimony. She is beaten by one of them prior to his incarceration, and she starts a life of foster homes followed by time with the aunt. Violet escapes the foster home with nothing but the clothes on her back. In the first year of exile, she sends homemade cards back to her family. She concludes that within families “…it’s best not to think at all. Just not at all.” Violet understands that “the years of waiting” had begun and they didn’t have to make themselves known. Contact with her sisters is unilateral, only originating from Violet. It was “Withered, desiccated. Barely alive. But still, it existed.” Hope stays hidden from the beginning of this novel and throughout the story, with a barely discernible pulse, and we keep reading for the possibility that it might rise from the dead.
The most difficult part of this novel comes probably a third of the way through and lasts nearly 50 pages, bringing us to the halfway point. Oates cleverly calls it “Mr. Sandman Bring Me a Dream”, and the creep factor is carefully unraveled like a large rug fraying at the edges. Think of Pat Ballard’s pop song from which she takes the chapter’s title, and imagine horror beneath the sweetness. It’s classic Oates; alarming, fatalistic, at times unbearably gloomy, and a fully realized dark character so horrible that the reader might find themselves wanting him excised from this text and concurrently revived for his own series of dark adventures. Mr. Sandman is a math teacher. He takes measurements. He has a library in his home filled with images of drugged, sleeping, naked young girls, “‘Sleeping Beauties,’ Violet thinks: No one else seemed to see me.” Mr. Sandman measures skulls, spine lengths, height, weight, the color of skin. Violet tries to convince herself of her encounters with Mr. Sandman that “Each time was a rescue.” “Don’t worry dear,” he says. “I’ll protect you.”
Again, this section might prove to test even the most patient reader. How dark will it get? Have we entered a different story? Violet reflects on the life in exile she’s experiencing with her Aunt Irma and Uncle Oscar:
“Living with adults you live with the husks of their old, lost lives. Like snakes’ husks or the husks of locusts underfoot. The fiction between you that you must not allow them to know.”
We get a full account of the titles in Mr. Sandman’s massive library, and they reflect his adoration of Adolph Hitler. Violet meets and connects with Tyrell, an African-American fellow student in Mr. Sandman’s math class, a young man who would prove to be that possible glimmer of hope by the final scenes of this novel. The seeds for salvation are planted here, but not without having to wander through the sludge of Mr. Sandman. Again, whether he proves to come off as an exaggerated intrusion in this dark story or a necessary element to Violet’s eventual rise from the ashes will depend on the reader’s patience and acceptance of a writing style which, for some readers, might seem anachronistic. For this reader, Mr. Sandman was unforgettable.
By Part III, Violet has been exiled from her immediate family for telling the truth about two of her brothers and their involvement in the beating and murder, endured calculated sexual abuse from a tyrannical Math teacher, and equally brutal (yet more immediate) domination from her Uncle Oscar. Thirteen years have passed since we first met her as a defiant 12-year-old, and she is rebuilding her life, finding work as a housekeeper. There is more abuse, but she finds solace. She finds good people. She’s a college student. Another man, Orlando Metti, starts a complicated relationship with Violet. As with most relationships in this novel (and really par for the course in the literary world of Oates), what might seem like a connection between two adults with a subjective level of consent is not always what it seems:
“Maybe instead of marrying her he will murder her.”
Again, this relationship does not end well. Violet runs for her life and ends up as a student at a state university. Tyrell Jones, the student persecuted years prior by Mr. Sandman, is now an assistant professor in the Math department. The past is never far behind for any character in this novel. Violet’s brothers will not always be in jail. Her parents will fade away, the love she might find with Tyrell is not guaranteed. Take this line, close to the end, and understand how determined Oates is not to provide a tidy ending:
“Happiness is not reliable. Melancholy is reliable.”
Indeed, the strongest guarantee by the end of this book is the consistency of melancholy, the persistence of an existence where fate is determined by class, race, gender, economy, and geography. Violet misinterpreted her honesty as a 12-year-old as a betrayal, so for 25 years, she made sure never to tell again. My Life as a Rat shimmers with possibilities by the end of its story. Violet has survived. Tyrell has been transformed and triumphed over the “devil” that was Mr. Sandman. Most remarkable is that Oates has added another unforgettably strong woman character to her canon, another variation on a seemingly endless theme of possibilities. If happiness usually proves duplicitous, and melancholy a dependable constant, then the journey of an epic Joyce Carol Oates novel is always going to be a trip worth experiencing.