Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Aesthetic of Fire in (Two Books By) Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates, to my knowledge, has never been suicidal. In fact she once wrote an essay characterizing Sylvia Plath as a personified argument against suicide. But, JCO is a living writer and thus falls under one of the categories of this blog. Her writings are profuse and diverse in form, subject and genre (she sometimes writes under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith in other genres), and she occasionally writes about boxing, a sport on which she is an expert. She has written over 50 novels and novellas, only a fraction of which I have read, and I am going to "review" one novel, 1993's "Foxfire" (which was turned into a horrendously bad movie), and one novella, 2002's "Beasts," both by JCO.

Both "Foxfire," and "Beasts" are in the tradition of Flannery O'Connor in terms of shocking 'out-of-the-blue' violence and equally shocking grotesque imagery, but while "Foxfire," is in certain places more akin to O'Connor, "Beasts," seems in places more akin to the mysterious Gothic of Hawthorne and Poe: gritty day/ debauched night (?). I will just say flat out, right now: both books are great reads, in fact "Foxfire," is one of the few novels I've ever been so totally enraptured with as to read it in one setting. Now that I've said this I'll move on to the aspect of the books on which I want to zero: the aesthetic of fire.

Both books contain in striking parallel scenario: the teenaged heroine of the each book torches a house and burns alive the inhabitants of each house. In "Foxfire," the heroine, Legs Sadowsky, witnesses an evil 'fraternity' of 'Deliverance' type men repeatedly raping and abusing a short statured woman in a house in the country who is identified as the sister of the male homeowner. When Legs tries to stop the men from continuing their abuse, they collectively muscle her, and she flees, only to return the next night and torch the place to the ground in feminine defiance to their masculine abuse. In "Beasts," the college age heroine, Gilian, discovers to her horror that one of her professors (whom she is in love with) and his french wife repeatedly lure female students to their secluded house in the woods (Hansel and Gretal!) where they drug the unsuspecting student with pills and bottles of wine, and then proceed to molest, rape, and thoroughly debauch the student and take pornographic pictures of the ordeal which they sell to smutty magazines. The result is Gilian torching their house and burning them alive. Both females use fire as a means to destroy evil.

Notice the parallels: both heroines are roughly the same age, both burn a house and its inhabitants to oblivion in response to sexual abuse/evil. Amidst the scenarios of pyromaniacal arson and the charred remains of once living (evil) people, the end result is ultimately positive, triumphant. For in these scenarios JCO builds in the reader an acute sense of horror, disgust, anger, rage, and justice, to a mighty crescendo of powerful triumph. Bad, even evil things happen in life, but good wins out in the beauty of fire, purging the evil from one's midst, so to speak. There also seems to be an element of distrust in the justice of civil authority. For neither heroines seek justice from the police, perhaps for a number of reasons intrusive to both novels but perhaps also, I suspect, because some things deserve to be consumed in the lap of fire; there is something primordially satisfying in reading these scenarios and wanting to join our clenched fists in the drumbeat of warfare against evil: invoking fire is the final, most ancient appeal, which attempts to make sense of the nonsensical; it is anti-logic action, passionate, and going to the police, while more logical, is not as interesting and visceral.

There are differences in the two scenarios. In "Foxfire," the fire scene is just one scene among many in the overarching story replete with revenge upon an unjust social structure, whereas in "Beasts," the fire scene is the climax of the novella. Also, in "Foxfire," the perpetrators (all male) and the victim are consumed in the blaze, whereas in "Beasts," only the perpetrators, one of whom is female, (the french wife of the professor) are consumed in the blaze. Interpretation(s) of these differences could go a number of ways, and personally I find the similarities more interesting.

These acts of arson are not the only significant and interesting aspects of these books. In "Foxfire," there is much made of feminism, communism and capitalism. In "Beasts," there is the highly sexualized sculptures of the french professors wife and her personal slogan, and most intriguing, the professors' obsession and adoption of the worldview and ethic of D.H. Lawrence. There's a lot in these books, and in spite of their intermittent dark material, they both speak of life as good.

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