Mirroring JonBenet story

Work of fiction tells of young girl's murder from her brother's point of view

July 06, 2008|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story Of Skyler Rampike By Joyce Carol Oates Ecco / 562 pages / $25.95

Social commentary has long been the hallmark of the best fiction. Many literary classics, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Edith Wharton's House of Mirth and, of course, Tolstoy's War and Peace, are declarative statements on their times.

Last month, Joyce Carol Oates turned 70 and launched her 35th novel, My Sister, My Love. Oates has published more than 100 books - novels, nonfiction, poetry, essays, literary criticism, plays, even children's books (Come Meet Muffin). She won the National Book Award for the first time in 1970 and has won it and a plethora of other awards since, including the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her only possible competition - outside of the realm of romance writing - for the award for most prolific American writer is John Updike. Some writers keep writing and one wishes they would stop. Others never seem to write enough to satisfy their devotees. But Oates, who publishes one, two or three books a year, always surprises, even when she presents a book that's flawed. But as with her first award-winning novel, them, Oates occasionally strikes a note so pitch-perfect that it's breathtaking to read what she has to say. My Sister, My Love is another such book.

No doubt the controversial nature of Oates' latest opus will push critics into opposite camps - Oates does that sometimes. But the most clear-eyed critics will see My Sister, My Love for what it is: lavish, uncompromising, incisive, poignant, raw, complex, astute.

With only a mild disclaimer stating that this is a work of fiction, Oates has written a roman a clef about the infamous JonBenet Ramsey murder more than a decade ago. Bix and Betsey Rampike are the social-climbing parents of Skyler and Bliss. Skyler is the failed athlete and older brother by three years of Bliss (born Edna Louise), a young figure-skating star. The family lives in the claustrophobic New Jersey suburbs, where Daddy disappears for long stretches and Mommy takes to her bed, ranting below her breath, and life is divided between when Bliss is skating and not skating.

Skyler, Oates' 19-year-old narrator, is a handicapped druggie (he was injured badly as a child gymnast in the first quest for fame by the family) and a storyteller. This is his - and Bliss' - narrative about the events that led to and from her murder when Skyler was 9 and Bliss a few days shy of her seventh birthday. The coming 10th anniversary of Bliss' murder is the occasion for his narrative.

Skyler is an overwrought, emotionally stunted yet deeply introspective mess. His sister's murder in the dead of a January night in their protected New Jersey home altered the family's collective life forever and sent them into the depths of what Oates/Skyler refer to as Tabloid Hell.

The opening salvo sets the tone for the narrative: Dysfunctional families are all alike. Ditto "survivors." The tale Oates tells, through Skyler, is one of the American quest for vicarious fame and celebrity. The details of Betsey's obsessive desire to make her daughter famous (her son having failed her) - the makeup, the outfits, the behavior (she teaches her daughter how to smile in a way that is both seductive and innocent and repeatedly shrieks "no grins, no grimaces!"), the training, the manipulation - are both wearing and horrifying.

What's more, it's clear that the only thing holding the womanizing Bix and the overweight Betsey together are the children - well, Bliss. Daddy comes home when Bliss is skating; Daddy disappears when Bliss is not skating. Oates herself skates perilously close to the Ramsey case. It's difficult to read My Sister, My Love without envisioning the beatific child-woman face of JonBenet Ramsey or the pushy Patsy Ramsey or the distant John Ramsey.

But the media never showed us JonBenet's brother, Burke, and therein lies Oates' trump card - we never saw him the way we saw the parents and the slain beauty queen, and so we are easily and - in our own voyeuristic way, which Oates is counting on - readily lured into the brother's story of a murder, the events leading up to it and the aftermath.

Where critics will no doubt diverge on My Sister, My Love is on whether Oates successfully pulls off this grand caper: She's taken on the role of social deconstructionist and social critic, entered the voice of the teenage brother of a child murder victim; she's taking on the celebrity chasers - which include her readers - and she's solving the crime. It's grand, to be sure, and to this critic, surprisingly successful.

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