"But, honey, aren't you one of them yourself?"
I read my first work by Joyce Carol Oates earlier this year and really enjoyed it. I started with Black Water, which is a novella that tells a fictionalized account of the Chappaquiddick incident, when a young girl was found inside of a sunken car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy. After reading Black Water I knew I wanted to read more JCO and I knew I wanted something larger. Enter them; winner of the 1970 National Book Award, nominee for the Pulitzer Prize, and book three of the Wonderland Quartet series.
In the introduction of the novel Oates describes that them is "a work of history in fictional form" and goes on to tell of a set of letters she received from an old student of hers when she taught at the University of Detroit. The girl expressed her restlessness in life and and overall feelings of resentment. Her "various problems and complexities overwhelmed" Oates and it was these letters that prompted Oates to write them. Parts of the letters appear half-way through the narrative. (I should mention the title is purposefully labeled with a lower-case "t," and details a specific "them".)
them follows two generations of the Wendall family and explores the forces that keep them in poverty and struggling to achieve happiness. The novel spans forty years, takes place in inner-city Detroit and ends during the race riots of 1967. Among other things, them explores the struggles of working class America, generational poverty, and obsessions of love, money and violence. If we focus on Maureen, the novel is a sort of bildungsroman, as we watch her grow from a small child into a woman. But the novel is more than Maureen's story. It is the story of a desperate family who desires a better life and struggles to understand those who are different from themselves.
I dream of a world where you can go in and out of bodies, changing your soul, everything changing and no fixed forever, becoming men and women, daughters, children again, even old people, feeling how it is to be them and then not hating them, out on the street. I don't want to hate.This is a tough one to review because anything I say about this book will not do it justice. It's like trying to review Middlemarch; where do you start? Like one of my very favorite authors, Margaret Atwood, the works Joyce Carol Oates permeate with feminist themes and explore larger social issues that are still relevant in modern America. With a focus of the female characters Loretta Wendall and her daughter Maureen, Oates highlights the plight of working class women:
Oh, we women know things you don't know, you teachers, you readers and writers of books, we are the ones who wait around libraries when it's time to leave, or sit drinking coffee alone in the kitchen; we make crazy plans for marriage but have no man, we dream of stealing men, we are the ones who look slowly around when we get off a bus and can't even find what we are looking for, can't quite remember how we got there, we are always wondering what will come next, what terrible thing will come next. We are the ones who leaf through magazines with colored pictures and spend long heavy hours sunk in our bodies, thinking, remembering, dreaming, waiting for something to come to us and give a shape to so much pain.The novel is beautifully written. Joyce Carol Oates certainly has a way with words; her prose it both eloquent and confident. The characters she imagines are sharp and memorable. I should say it's a bit of a downer; moments of happiness are few and far between. But don't let that deter you. It is absolutely worth the read.
Publisher: Modern Library Classics, 1969