For years she kept a careful distance from the world, weaving her tales of violence with exquisite detail. Now this prize-winning writer has entered upon a new stage; with a new outlook and a new Gothic novel of major proportions.
By Lucinda Franks
In a trance Raphael stretched out upon his raft...The pond had made itself manifest to him. It took him into its depth, it embraced him, whispered..."Come here, come here to me, I will take you in. I will give you new life. "
The undersized child with ... that furtive expression tinged with a melancholy irony ... was seen less and less frequently that summer until, finally, one morning, it was discovered that he had simply vanished...”Raphael," they called... ” Where are you hiding?"...They went in search of him to Mink Pond, of course... But where was Mink Pond? It seemed, oddly, that Mink Pond, too, had vanished.
-From "Bellefleur" by JOYCE CAROL OATES
She slides back the glass doors, steps out onto her stone terrace and invites you, for a short time, to enter her world. A hawk dips down through the trees, a cat and dog face off with hisses and growls. You recognize all of them; a gallery of misplaced characters. The bird belongs not here in Joyce Carol Oates's backyard on the outskirts of Princeton, N.J., but elsewhere and you half expect it to swoop down and ferry you to Bellefleur Castle; the rainbow-colored cat, the holly, the dragonflies, all are escapees from the author's 35th and latest book.
Beyond the terrace, a familiar body of water, choked with rushes and water iris, stretches languidly before you.
"Yes, it's Mink Pond," says the author. "That, like many things in the land of the Bellefleurs, is a symbol. No! Raphael did not die. The pond is an emblem of his imagination - a more hospitable place for him - and that, in the end, is where he returned."
And, in the end, all the raw pieces of reality - the people, places, bits of gossip, confession that touch the life of Joyce Carol Oates are, like Raphael, swallowed up by her imagination; transformed, compressed, cut and set like diamonds in her fiction.
The cat, Misty, oblivious of the fact that he has been re-created in his mistress's litterature as the dazzling Mahalaleel - an aristocratic stray who as the grand-chat of Bellefleur Castle is more iridescent, much silkier and infinitely more commanding than the original - lurks beneath the garden chairs waiting to pounce on one of his brothers, all of whom had been rescued by the author, who is childless, from a roadside abandonment.
She sits casually, but she is as tall and erect as a signal tower, fading in and out each time a blue jay or cat intercepts her attention. She looks somehow lost in time, as though she has emerged from the Gothic porticos of her own "Bellefleur." If her face is dramatically arresting, she seems to dress it down with the ordinary. At first impression - dainty hairstyle, rosebud lips, Middle Western drawl - she looks as if a frilly apron or wrist flower would suit her. But then, there are the eyes: intense, brown, shining; twice as big and taking in twice as much as you might expect.
She speaks almost below her breath, as though there were someone in the next room whom she didn't want to overhear her. It is hard to believe that this is the voice directing the stories that tell of sons who murder their mothers, of religious leaders who gouge out their own eyes, of medical students who cannibalize cadavers.
She reminds you of a magician's sleeve, from which a chain of connected handkerchiefs is pulled; it doesn't seem possible (the sleeve is not very wide), but the material keeps coming and coming until it fills the stage. There are many worlds, you realize, belonging to Joyce Carol Oates, beyond the one which you are being permitted to visit.
Winner of the National Book Award for fiction in 1970 for her novel "them," frequent recipient of an 0. Henry Award, a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Joyce Carol Oates is regarded as one of the nation's preeminent fiction writers. Nevertheless, at age 42, she has not received the popular recognition accorded her equals, largely because in the past she herself has chosen obscurity, refusing interviews and talk-show invitations. In the last 17 years, she has produced 12 novels, 11 collections of short stories, eight volumes of poetry, three books of literaly criticism, one play, and hundreds of book reviews. That is an average of about two books a year, a record of prolificacy that has earned not only the awe but also the suspicion of many critics, who accuse her of "automatic writing." She has always, however, enjoyed a rather rarefied audience, with a group of only about 20,000 faithful buying her books in hardcover.
Now, however, with the publication of "Bellefleur," hopes abound that this state of affairs will change. Unlike her other books, which are fixed in time and place and usually deal with a specific genre group, "Bellefleur" spans six generations of an American family, beginning with one Jean-Pierre Bellefleur who, having been banished from France, builds in 1802 a castle in the valleys of a place that sounds very much like the Adirondacks. It is a Gothic saga, a tableau of the real and the surreal, rich with magic, whimsy, tragedy and humor and just the right number of unforgettable characters (some of whom turn into animals from time to time) to fit the prescription for a commercial success. The heads of her publishers are alive with fantasies that she will become the book publishing world's next queen-for-a-day, with her hefty backlist turning into coffers of gold. Fawcett Books, the paperback house that has issued all of her novels, has apparently decided this might happen; it has put in a floor bid of $200,000 - $50,000 higher than it has ever paid for a Joyce Carol Oates book - for the as yet unscheduled paperback auction of "Bellefleur."
Their high hopes may be realized. In last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, John Gardner said that "whatever its faults, 'Bellefleur' is simply brilliant," and he called Miss Oates "one of the great writers of our time."
She walked past the front steps, her hair blowing helplessly across her face... Why was everything so raw, so open? It was like walking along the beach, narrowing her eyes slightly against the wind. She felt a certainty, an excitement, that something would happen very shortly, and that her life would begin.
-From "Do With Me What You Will”