Reviewed by John Leonard
You will have noticed that Joyce Carol Oates seldom repeats herself. Yes, she is always interested in class, race, sex, dreams, madness, and boxing; in landscape, philosophy, worship, work, and violence; in fear and loathing in the breakfast nook and tool shed. Like Hawthorne and Faulkner, her hallucinatory antecedents, she can't get enough of Original Sin. And she is forever submitting new specimens of these old obsessions to exploratory surgery by alternative literary genres, sociological, satirical, or symbolic-here some Zola, there a mystery, yonder the gothic romance. But she's too restless, and maybe too voracious, to stay tethered to anyone whipping post for long. On to John Brown, Joe McCarthy, and Chappaquiddick! By my count, which omits her Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly thrillers, My Sister, My Love (Harper Perennial, $15.99) is her thirty-sixth novel, and if it resembles any other earlier Oates, the closest is either Zombie (1995), about the Jeffrey Dimmer serial-murder case, or Blonde (2000), her re-imagining of Marilyn Monroe.
My Sister, My Love purports to be "the intimate story" and true-life memoir of Skyler Rampike, the troubled older brother of Bliss Rampike, the six-year-old Barbie Doll figure-skating champion whose murdered body is found in the basement of her suburban New Jersey home, after which Skyler disappears into psych wards, recovery rooms, and reform school while the rest of his family enters Tabloid Hell. If you are reminded of the true-crime case of JonBenet Ramsey, the six-year-old bed-wetting beauty-pageant queen who also had a troubled older brother and whose murdered body was likewise discovered in the cellar of her suburban Colorado home, so was I -- and so Oates hopes. She uses our own prurient fantasies about the JonBenet Ramsey case as a kind of jujitsu, tumbling us into horrifying perspectives on female vanity, male stupidity, family dysfunction, status anxiety, crackpot Christianity, kinky nymphet ice capades, medicalized jurisprudence, the vampire media, and postmodern Tristram Sharuiy storytelling.
These are the rat-race, substance-abusing, fraudulent, and adulterous suburbs of Cheever and Updike, of Rick Moody's Ice Storm and Evan S. Connell's Mrs. Bridge, as filtered through the spongy brain of a Sound and Fury Benjy. (Oates has as much wicked fun ringing changes on the exhausted idea of an "unreliable narrator" as she does wandering among the stuffed heads of a pedophile taxidermist.) These are the numbskull clichés of pop sociology, pop religion, and pop therapy, of self-help books, prescription drugs, and recovered memory. (On one inside-joke occasion, our memoirist mistakenly attributes the wisdom of P. T. Barnum to Mary Baker Eddy.) We will even be told who really killed brave little Bliss.
Blonde came to mind because that Oates novel, rather than contributing to the literature of overwriting on the subject by everybody from Diana Trilling and Gloria Steinem to Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer, channeled pop iconography-torn blonde hair, bright-red dress, mirrors, cameras, dolls, and dead-baby dreams-to talk about dread. Part psychoanalysis, part police interrogation, impatient with mediated memories of Marilyn Monroe, Blonde made us look at the Gemini faces of Norma Jean in oscillation, daffy and dazed, waif and slut. Surely, to have been used as she was not only by the film studios but also by the famous baseball player, the equally famous playwright, and the fabulously famous pol, was some kind of record for victimization in the discourse of rubbishy machismo. In My Sister, My Love, Oates likewise speaks brilliantly for JonBenet, against our pulpy molestations. It's as if this prodigious novelist can't help registering all the voices the culture tries to repress. She hears screams and writes books. I am reminded of Joan of Arc, who heard bells and then immediately had visions. After the rapture of carillons, see Catherine, or Margaret, or Michael...Oates, too, consorts with warrior-angels.
Books mentioned in this post