Posts Tagged ‘joyce carol oates’

I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990)
by Joyce Carol Oates
98 pages


This novella tells the story, through the eyes of her granddaughter, of a woman of the early 20th century who didn’t fit into the rural upstate New York world she was born into. Edith, or “Calla” as she likes to call herself, is an odd child, red-haired and half-wild, and her family decides she needs to be married off as soon as possible. They find an older bachelor they hope will be a good fit, but there is little connection between the two, and Calla prefers to spend her days roaming the countryside rather than taking care of her children or socializing with her husband’s family. She finally makes a strong connection with someone when she gets to know a travelling black man who does work on their farm as a water dowser, but the affair is doomed.

This story has a very strong gothic-romantic-poetic feel to it, to the point where it was a bit too much for me personally. Though it would probably depend on the reader. The story is mostly ‘told’ rather than actually ‘shown’ through events, so you don’t feel that close to any of the characters. It reminded me a bit of Oates’s novella Black Water, which was also short, somewhat repetitive in narration, and which also didn’t really work for me.  I think I prefer Oates when her work has more of a spirit of realism.

The title of the novella is the main reason why I wanted to read this, since I just found the sound of it intriguing. It’s the title of the painting by Fernand Khnopff that appears on the cover:

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Expensive People

Expensive People (1968)
by Joyce Carol Oates
256 pages
Fawcett Crest


This is a novel that looks forward to an event for almost its whole length, and then when it finally happens in the last few pages…you end up not being sure that it happened at all.

The novel is narrated by Richard Everett, now in his late teens, who looks back on his childhood, and specifically the events that led to his being a murderer at about age 11. He is the child of a financially successful, older father who is often away on business, and a mother who is a promising writer of literary fiction. The child is emotionally isolated from both parents, as they move around from one anonymous wealthy suburb to another, and Richard navigates private schools, superficial friendships with other privileged children, and spying on his parents cocktail parties.  The relationship with the mother is especially strained, as she appears somewhat mentally unstable, and has suddenly left the family several times.

It’s interesting how Oates gets into the mind of an emotionally troubled young boy, and inside a upper-class family, since I’m pretty sure her personal experience is nowhere close to this sphere of American society. The mother character, the writer, is perhaps the closest to Oates, and Oates even goes to the point of including one of her previously published stories in the novel as a story written by the mother. A bit disturbing, as the mother is clearly the worst character in this story. Incidentally, though the old paperback cover above has its trashy charm, it doesn’t have much to do with the novel itself – the mother is described as having short black hair, while the son, presumably the figure in the background, is supposed to wear glasses and be severely overweight. I always wonder how many cover artists actually read the books they work on.

A recent cover

In the end I’d say this is a decent minor work by Oates. The story is well-told and absorbing, but ultimately not that vast or deep. The question left for the reader is if the narrator actually did commit the murder, or is he lying about it as a form of psychological self-protection.  Since we have nothing to go by but an unreliable narrator, and some of this other accounts near the end of the novel begin to be very fragmented and obviously incoherent, it can always be up for debate, but my own interpretation is that the narrator, contrary to his statement all through the book, is not actually a murderer.

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I’m currently reading Joyce Carol Oates’ Expensive People (review up in a day or two), and as I was just doing some browsing about her online, I found out that not only had she re-married after her husband’s death in 2008, but she’s selling her long-time home. After reading her descriptions of her writing habits and seeing several photos of her at home, it’s interesting to get a look at the place where she did so much work, and the adjoining woods that she talked about.

I”m a bit surprised at the almost mod-style feel of the place.  Those floor-to-ceiling windows must cost a fortune to heat in the winter.

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