Joyce Carol Oates: always close to the ground Massive output: Prolific, versatile, but is she masterful?

The Argument

February 04, 1996|By W. G. Regier | W. G. Regier,Special to the Sun

What comes from Detroit, is mass produced in a variety of styles, and can go long distances on a little gas? The fiction of Joyce Carol Oates.

Poet, playwright, professor, novelist, critic, reviewer and indefatigable short story writer, Ms. Oates has made productivity her most conspicuous characteristic: more than 90 books published so far, and counting. Nothing stops her fiction factory, though many sniff at its emissions. Is Ms. Oates the American answer to imports like Chekhov and Joyce? Or is she like Galdos and Verne, building a reputation in bulk?

Often chastened for publishing too much, Ms. Oates cut her 1995 output to two novels, a book of plays, and a study of the American painter of the boxing ring, George Bellows. Patiently outproducing her critics, she drowns questions about why she writes so much in wonder about how she does it. Obsession, she says simply. Ms. Oates has made fun of her obsession by sometimes publishing under a pseudonym (Rosamond Smith) and inventing a Portuguese author (Fernandes) she could pretend to translate.

Her obsession is large enough to have sub-obsessions, like murder and madness. For sleepless schizophrenics, Ms. Oates has produced a pack of dopplegangers. For lonesome lovers, she's the Muse of Romance, who knows that a harsh, unhappy ending can be more satisfying than a boring moonlight kiss. For booksellers and Gothic covens, she's Hecate humanized, dark inextinguishable fertility.

The number of books she's written is small compared to the number she's sold: 5 million plus. Whatever else she may be, she's popular. Her first book for 1996 shows why. "Will You Always Love Me?" (Dutton. 326 pages. $23.95) is a pitch to the romance reader and a prolific author's plea to her readers. Ms. Oates labors to be lovable and love, she believes, thrives best in mystery. For instance: "Harry was amused, or was he in fact disgusted, by the notion of love in the old, sentimental sense: pledging fidelity, channeling one's very soul into the soul of another. The grasping needs, the anxieties. He thought: Apart from the sexual attraction of the female for the male, which is certainly powerful, there is the attraction of the mysterious. You fall in love with what is not-known in the other. And what is not known becomes the identity of the other." That's Ms. Oates in a clamshell.

She spares no effort to appeal to readers. Her characters match the market profile of people who read recent fiction: financially secure, college educated and willing to think a little beyond the last word. She loves animals: the latest collection features a dog, a horse, a parrot and a fawn. She writes in the most popular genres: mystery, romance, thriller.

Ms. Oates removes every obstacle between her work and her readers, speeding them on, story after story. By her own estimate, she has already published more than 400 of them. Ms. Oates works hard to seem easy. Her characters come out of the commonplace and her vocabulary seldom strays far from the familiar. "But what is there to say about most men and women, after all?" Ms. Oates asks, admitting the challenge of her enterprise.

A carnival ride

Her stories typically arise from ordinary scenes and situations, the dull, daydreamy routines that wish for a surprise. Like a demiurge, she provides one, usually nasty. Once they get going, her plots plunge and veer like a carnival ride. They're easy to get into, they don't last long, and two or three in a row can test the intestines.

Ms. Oates seeds her stories with ordinary truths: parents must court their children as ardently as suitors; pleasures prefer privacy; a spouse can suddenly be a stranger. Behind such truths lurk others which, perhaps, are better left lurking. Ms. Oates once said, "The appeal of writing - of any kind of artistic activity - is primarily the investigation of mystery." Readers curious about Ms. Oates' fiction but who have not yet sampled it might do no better than her 1979 novel "Unholy Loves," one of her rare comedies, in which she reveals her own suspicions about literary opinion. She's written so much, heard so much about what she's written, that she can shade in and out of self-parody. Some mysteries may be sacred; others are for suckers. Savvy as a boxer, Ms. Oates slips in her best punch in a combination.

Read singly, the stories can be as stiff and flat as oven mitts. Together they raise a ruckus. At first sight, the opening story, "Act of Solitude," seems simple enough: a tale of festering guilt for despising the homeless. Immediately followed by "You Petted Me and I Followed You Home," a story about a stray dog, the first story rubs against the second like raw blisters, a painful abrasion of sympathies.

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