Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Two very good authors, part I

I have discovered two excellent writers, specifically Joyce Carol Oates (her Gothic novels), and Kage Baker. I'm going to blog about them separately, but before I start: hurray that there are always good books to be found!

Joyce Carol Oates's Gothic novels
I found these because I read a Guardian article by Carlos Ruiz Zafon about twentieth-century Gothic novels. I had to buy them secondhand from the USA, and I love that they come in slightly trashy mass-market covers; they remind me very much of the sweeping family sagas which I used to find in my granny's house as a kid. At the same time, Joyce Carol Oates is clearly formidably intelligent, and she has chosen to write this group of novels each in a different related genre because she has points to make underneath the stories.
Bellefleur is the first I read. The cover has a hole cut in the O of Oates to show part of a picture which is revealed when you turn the page:

It's about several generations of a rich and exploitative American family in the nineteenth century. Frankly it's gloriously mad, and cries out to be illustrated, perhaps with melodramatic engravings, something like Goya's Sleep of Reason. It starts with the traditional stormy night and something unknown approaching the castle, and the impetuous young wife who rushes down to let it in before anyone can stop her. The family members tend to meet strange fates -- about the best you can hope for as a Bellefleur is to disappear and not be known for certain to be dead. There are lots of grotesque elements, like Leah's unusually attractive pet spider Love, the Bellefleur Vulture, and the woman who accidentally fell in love with a bear. Oates writes extravagantly, daringly long sentences which deliberately push at ridiculousness and sometimes curve back on themselves like Pynchon. There's a sort of chutzpah quality to the writing which you also find in Julian Rathbone's works -- as if you read something and think "hang on a moment, what?" and the author replies "you heard".
The Mysteries of Winterthurn was the next one I read. This is a "mystery" in that it has a detective figure, but also in that it has elements of horror and the supernatural. It's less exuberant than Bellefleur, and much angrier -- it has that undertone of suppressed rage which is found in many nineteenth-century novels by women -- just think how angry Jane Eyre is. It's very spooky and could be read as a straightforward story, or rather three stories; but the first two stories also hint something rather disturbing about the third, and all three together make points about different types of suppression, points which are there to be discovered rather than forcing themselves on the reader.
A Bloodsmoor Romance is the story of five sisters; and starts with the sudden abduction of one of them from their grandparents' garden by a sinister black balloon. It's the funniest of the three, and the one which most clearly has points to make, as the five sisters meet their different fates. The reviews, or at least the reviews quoted on the flyleaves, reflect this, saying things like "that rare and valuable thing, a warm-hearted and humorous feminist tract", and "female, clever, facetious and mischievous... the book is a feminist romance with a lot of axes to grind, and it grinds them wittily until their edges are polished to a fine sharpness". Either the reviewers or the publishers seem to have taken this one rather more seriously than the others.

I am currently waiting for My Heart Laid Bare to arrive from America. And the last of the five, The Crosswick Horror, has not been published (apart from an extract about rabies) and lies, complete, in an archive in Syracuse. People often talk about the Great American Novel, often in a rather tongue-in-cheek tone, but I think that maybe in this group of novels about the American family and class system Joyce Carol Oates may actually have written it, without many people noticing.

The odd thing is that I still feel a bit cautious about reading Oates's other books. She's famously prolific, and I don't know where I'd go next. The same is not true of my other new discovery, Kage Baker. Tune in tomorrow (or sometime soon) for information about why you should read everything Kage Baker has ever written! She's not as literary, and she doesn't put genres on and off like outdoor coats, but I'm still just as glad to have found her work.

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