Joyce Carol Oates turned 75 years old yesterday, and she’s now writing some of the best fiction of her career. More than any other American novelist of her generation, Oates has been ruthless in questioning her obsessions. Constantly experimenting with different styles, situations, and characters, she has refused to settle into a fixed viewpoint, either toward herself or other people. We recognize the Oates world of physical and psychological violence when we read her, but there has never been anything complacent in her vision. She doesn’t romanticize violence in the way Mailer or Hemingway do. She also doesn’t romanticize victimhood, even if victims of aggression are key figures in many of her works. We’ll probably never know exactly what happened to Oates when she was young, though books like Son of the Morning, with its nightmarish gang rape, give us some disturbing clues. But whatever it is that powers her writing, she races on, making mistakes and learning from them, relentless in her pursuit of each new novel. In Virginia Woolf’s terms, Oates has put as much of her art down on the page as possible, has expressed herself completely, achieving “the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire” the work that is in her.
In her latest novel, The Accursed, the characters hunger to eat the people around them, and sometimes hunger to be eaten in turn. The hunger thrives on the mutual incomprehension between husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, ministers and anarchists, journalists and university presidents, blacks and whites, artists and propagandists, social reformers and politicians. The novel repeatedly demonstrates how, despite our best intentions, we can fall in love with our ignorance, the compulsions that blind and fulfill us. Our appetites are terrible and destructive, but they also drive us toward whatever flawed, incomplete actions we might take — only to force us, in the end, to discover we’ve advanced the worst in us along with the best. Consummation is something to be feared and desired.
Our urge to feed on others is built into the novel’s prose. The narrator, M.W. van Dyck II, is writing the book in 1984. Van Dyck is a man in his late-seventies, with many of the prejudices of someone from his time and place. Oates doesn’t, however, spend the novel scoring cheap points against him. Instead, we often have a hard time separating his self-deceptions from his insights. Oates doesn’t want us to feel superior to van Dyck. She wants us to see that his flaws aren’t so different from ours. Our convictions might not age any better than his have.
Van Dyck claims to offer us his research on the Curse, a series of “mysterious, seemingly linked events occurring in, and in the vicinity of, Princeton, New Jersey, in the approximate years 1900-1910.” Yet he admits his account is a stylized distillation. The multiple “histories” of the events, he says, “have been condensed into a single ‘history’ as a decade of time has been condensed, for purposes of aesthetic unity, to a period of approximately fourteen months in 1905-1906.” Is he an unreliable narrator who doesn’t see how far he strays from the facts? Or a strangely reliable narrator who deliberately draws our attention to the fictions we impose on our experiences? He’s both, and the tension between these possibilities extends to every person in the story, and to the entire world of the novel, which is constantly shifting before our eyes.
Van Dyck’s voice is only one among the many voices he gives us, from diaries, coded journals, a deathbed confession, the text of a blasphemous sermon. All of the speakers are determined to have their say against the words of the people who come into conflict with them. What’s at stake isn’t just the interpretation of the Curse but the question of whether the men and women in the novel have wasted their lives. Their struggles mean more to them than they feel others can understand, and Oates catches them in the act of trying to impose that meaning everywhere they go. As usual, Oates is in thrall to her characters without being limited to any single viewpoint or any specific type of figure. She immerses herself as passionately in Marilyn Monroe in Blonde as she does in the reckless businessman Corky Corcoran in What I Lived For, the lawyer in Do With Me What You Will, the wife in American Appetites, the evangelist in Son of the Morning, the leader of the girl gang in Foxfire, the alcoholic father in We Were the Mulvaneys. No single person in The Accursed stands out as strongly as Corky Corcoran or Legs Sadovsky or Michael Mulvaney do. In compensation, though, this is the Oates novel that best displays her range, her feel for the pressures we all exert on each other.
2. The Bog Kingdom
The plot of The Accursed is a parody of a Gothic horror story, a mash-up of Dracula with samples from Hawthorne’s greatest hits. We get the spreading consequences of passed-down sin from The Marble Faun and The House of the Seven Gables, the guilty conscience of Dimmesdale and the communal punishment of Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter, the problematic utopianism of Brook Farm and the rebelliousness of Zenobia from The Blithedale Romance. At first the novel seems to promise merely a mock romance, a reaction against Twilight-style sentimentality. Quickly, however, we enter a far-reaching meditation on history, class, racism, politics, religion, business, and power, involving a wide array of characters and settings. Though nearly 700 pages long, and despite its intricate collage of documents and viewpoints, the story moves with Oates’s characteristic deftness. The Accursed has a striking tone of playful seriousness, the exhilaration that comes from a writer who knows she’s doing a major book and knows she’s doing it well.
The Dracula figure is Axson Mayte. He ruins the reputation of Annabel Slade on the day of her wedding to another man. She is with Mayte for a short time, becomes pregnant, dies in childbirth.
But the facts of Annabel’s seduction are unclear. The gossip-mongers in Princeton see Mayte as a demonic aristocrat who holds a vampire-like sway over women. But did Mayte kidnap Annabel or did she simply decide to walk out on her wedding?
The question becomes more urgent when Annabel returns to her family and gives birth to Mayte’s child. Before the birth, she allegedly makes a confession to her brother about her experiences in Mayte’s home, the surreal Bog Kingdom. The Bog Kingdom is an anti-sexual version of a Gothic estate. It strips the Gothic conventions of their plush eroticism: for Mayte, seduction contains no love or passion but only a cold, bored, exhausted exercise of power. The Bog Kingdom is all about turning everyone to food and waste, with the emphasis on the waste. Annabel quickly learns she is meant to be used up by Mayte and his drinking companions, and then thrown in the marsh with Mayte’s other dead brides. The dying women in Mayte’s harem are held in rooms for horrific medical experiments, or function as broken-down manual laborers. Mayte and his men soon lose interest in raping Annabel and make her a servant-girl. As they eat cannibal sandwiches, “raw beefsteak that leaked blood down their chins,” they jab Annabel’s pregnant belly with their elbows. Then she is exiled to the cellar-crew. She must bail out the sewage from the cesspool, through “the continuous emptying-out of buckets, hour after hour, day following day.”
What are we to make of this bizarre confession? Is this really Annabel’s voice? Her words reach us through at least two degrees of warping — first from her brother, who hates Mayte, and then from van Dyck, who has a complicated relationship to the Bog Kingdom story. Is the story Annabel’s crazed version of a more conventional seduction-and-abandonment, the result of her mind being broken by Mayte’s cruelty? Or do the exaggerations come from her brother, who turns increasingly unstable as the novel goes on? Moreover, what do the exaggerations reveal? Is the vision of the Bog Kingdom the brother’s revenge on Annabel for damaging her family’s reputation? Is the monstrous image of Mayte a puritanical fairy tale, a warning to all Princeton women against following their desires?
Oates won’t allow us any easy answers. Instead, she develops the possibility that Annabel’s confession is a mix, a bastardization of Annabel’s version of the truth along with the versions of her brother, the community, and of course van Dyck. The confession contains odd layers, contradictions that might have survived because the brother and van Dyck have either allowed them to survive or haven’t recognized them or have inserted them later. Many of the novel’s characters have moments when they find themselves saying or thinking something that contradicts what they would usually say or believe. They surrender to unexpected countercurrents, reversed or distorted twists on their self-image. These individual moments of madness — or moments of one strain of madness within other strains of madness — gradually join the larger movements of the Curse through the community. Finally all of Princeton becomes as strange and wildly divided as the story of the Bog Kingdom.
I don’t want to make too much out of it, but the divisions in Oates’s characters might help explain some of the minor lapses in her nonfiction writing and her public statements. She recently tweeted, for instance, that reviewers should try to limit the opinions they express, even though she has spent years producing highly opinionated criticism for The New York Review of Books. Oates has an eye for our paradoxes, the quarrels and inconsistencies we carry around inside us. Possibly she writes so well about our contradictions in part because they’re so strongly present in her personality. I sometimes wonder if she even courts her inconsistencies in order to see them more clearly for her novels and stories. Oates is the opposite of those writers who devote most of their effort to maintaining an artful persona to help market mediocre books. Her public image is slipshod and poorly managed, while her fiction has consumed the bulk of her exceptional energy, has nourished itself on the special ferocity she brings to the design and execution of her work.
3. Birth and Rebirth
Van Dyck tells us Annabel died when her child was born; the baby lived only a few seconds. Van Dyck also reports that gossip turned the baby into a grotesque snake creature, the appropriate offspring for Mayte. Later in the novel, however, we suspect the child has survived. He might even be van Dyck, who was officially born soon after Annabel’s death. Van Dyck’s legal parents hadn’t slept together for years when the wife supposedly became pregnant. In the second half of the novel, the husband goes insane mapping the lines of the Curse and trying to work out if his wife has been unfaithful.
The narrator is lost in the impossibility of knowing whether he’s Annabel’s son. If Annabel gave birth to a demon, is the demon van Dyck? Is the Bog Kingdom his admission of some hidden strain of brutality in him? Or is he satirizing the prejudices the community marshaled to pass judgment on Annabel’s actions? There’s a chance that Annabel or van Dyck’s legal mother — or both of them working together — invented the Bog Kingdom and the story of the baby’s death. They might have used the misogynistic fantasies behind the Curse to conceal the baby’s transfer and perhaps, as the disorienting penultimate chapter hints, to give Annabel and her siblings a chance at being reborn themselves. If Annabel was caught between her original romanticizing of Mayte and Princeton’s equally inaccurate demonizing of him, she might have fed on those who fed on her, might have turned their hungers against them. But in the process, she might have helped the Curse radiate outward, releasing pain and death in ways she couldn’t anticipate. Though she possibly outwits the people who use her, they respond by letting the Curse run wild, as a cover for their most destructive acts, including the rape and murder of at least two young men.
4. Dogs and Dinners
The Accursed is full of deluded leaders, from Woodrow Wilson to Teddy Roosevelt to the heads of some of the elite Princeton families. They treat other people’s lives as a banquet, an endless feast of cannibal sandwiches. Yet Oates devotes the bulk of the book to characters who hold only a limited amount of influence, which they’re desperate to protect or expand.
The chapters on the muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair link the nightmare of the Bog Kingdom to the complexities of political and social reform. With The Jungle, his famous and still-timely exposé of the food industry, Sinclair forces people like Annabel’s brother to wonder if they’ve literally become cannibals, drinking the blood of workers injured or killed in the factories. Sinclair is both a genuine reformer and a cringing, timid, would-be tyrant. His drive to reveal the injustices of capitalism blinkers him to his neglect of his wife and helps him rationalize his kitsch Nietzcheism. Oates views him satirically, but the satire isn’t a simple matter of declaring him a hypocrite. For Oates, identifying our hypocrisy is less interesting than tracing the eccentric ways our mingled impulses carry us forward. It’s his contradictions — his clashing waves of kindness and insecurity and intolerance — that make Sinclair human. The same can be said of Annabel’s brother, who becomes more vivid for us as he becomes more confused about what he wants.
Jack London appears in the book as an activist version of Mayte: a man who seeks revolution so he can satisfy his appetites without restraint. The Bog Kingdom used to belong to aristocrats; Mayte was a servant in the Kingdom and led a revolt against his masters, so he could take their place and install an even more brutal regime. This is what Jack London wants as well. He worships violence, thinks he is a “natural warrior” who was “born deprived of his heritage.” His destiny, he says, is to “rise up against those who exploit him — and drink their sang impur.”
Upton Sinclair is horrified by London’s bloodlust yet mesmerized by his vitality. London has a rough magnetic presence that the physically delicate and emotionally divided Sinclair lacks. Again like Mayte, London bullies his followers. He demands their abasement along with their admiration. Sinclair watches London give a speech, and sits “gazing up at his hero with the unstinting admiration of a kicked dog for his master, who has left off kicking him for the moment and is being kind to him, capriciously, yet wonderfully.” This recalls Annabel’s delusions in the Bog Kingdom. Even after Mayte has sentenced her to endlessly emptying the cesspool, Annabel fantasizes that he is merely testing her, “hoping to determine if I loved him purely, or was so shallow as to foreswear my vow to him.” Only gradually does she realize that she has chosen to come to the Bog Kingdom, and that she can choose to leave it.
The powerful want us to believe that submitting to their demands is natural, irresistible, right. Sinclair and Annabel, however, end up abandoning their masters and refusing to follow orders. Oates can see the strength in Sinclair’s wavering kindness and delicacy, and the weakness in Mayte’s boorish aggression. Still, the standout quality of The Accursed is the turn and flow of the characters’ personalities, the constant repositioning of their relationships with each other. The characters never harden into a final form we can pass judgment on, and we understand them differently depending on where we are in the book. Like The Golden Bowl and the other Henry James works that Oates references, The Accursed resists moralistic parsing. The novel finds its beauty in its ability to keep all its competing interpretations alive and strong, spinning around each other in humming, electric motion.
Most literary novelists feel relatively confident they can sell copies of their newly published book to their parents, probably to their siblings, maybe (if they haven’t sparred too often over loud music or lawnmowers or leaf blowers) to their neighbors. Their local bookstore, if they still have one, is likely to agree to carry the book too and may even put a copy in the shop window or on a central table.
With a review or two in a local paper, these same writers may also experience the disconcerting ecstasy of seeing their book in the palms of a stranger sitting across from them on a bus or subway. With a few reviews in a national publication or by powerful bloggers and Twitter pundits, he or she may receive SMS’d pics from friends who have seen it in bookstores in other U.S. towns and cities.
But how about beyond the fruited plain? Whose work gets read outside of America?
In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize selection committee, infamously called American authors “too insular,” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” The last American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was Toni Morrison in 1993; American writers, Engdahl said, “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” The implication was no one cares about contemporary American fiction but Americans.
During the ten years I lived in France, I witnessed firsthand the regional limitations of American literary fiction. But not all American novels go unnoticed. On any bestseller list in France, you’ll find The Help and Fifty Shades of Grey and the latest book by Dan Brown. You’ll also find American literary fiction. You just won’t find all or necessarily the same books as on similar lists in America. [Editor’s note: As the commenters have pointed out Fifty Shades author E.L. James is indeed British and not American. To clarify, her books, like The Help and those by Dan Brown have perched atop American bestseller lists.]
Distribution decisions play an obvious role: if a reader in Lyon can’t get a book, the reader in Lyon won’t be reading it. I was ready to kiss the ground the day my publisher decided to create a paperback international edition for my debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, in addition to the hardback U.S. edition. I’ve subsequently seen An Unexpected Guest on bookstore shelves not only in France, but also in England, Switzerland, and Finland. I receive messages through my website from readers as distant as India and Malaysia. Foreign rights sales also award far-flung readers (and in my case have given me a couple of new first names: “Anna” on the Russian edition; “En” in Serbia).
Set post-9/11 amongst expatriates in Paris, An Unexpected Guest seems a likely candidate for finding a global audience. But every country has its own literary predilections. With a relative absence of cronyism, the playing field is leveled; a new balance of criteria goes into building an audience. It seems to me that French readers frequently go for novels that manage to be both intensely American and yet possess one of the characteristics often attributed to works in their own contemporary oeuvre: dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten). The last French novel I read, Le canapé rouge by Michèle Lesbre, clocked in at 138 pages, and French readers are not dismissive of short American novels either: Julie Otsuka’s 144-page-long Buddha in the Attic won this past year’s prestigious Prix Femina Étranger. But they are not averse to length either (see, for example, Joyce Carol Oates below). They also like authors who like France and have an understanding of French culture. They enjoy being taken to places – U.S. college campuses, inner Brooklyn, suburbia – they might normally never visit.
But just as there are many sorts of French authors, each American author admired in France brings an own set of attractions. Following are eight examples.
The New Yorker
During the ten years I lived in France, I could have easily believed Paul Auster was America’s preeminent living author. French prizes that Auster has won include the Prix France Culture de Littérature Etrangère, the Prix Medicis étranger, and Grand Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. In a 2010 interview, Auster, who lived in Paris from 1971-74, explained his cult-like status in France, thus: “In France, they feel I am on their side. It helps that I speak French. I am not the American enemy.” But can that account for the ardent following, which extends across the Continent, for his very New York-centric fiction? On his official Facebook page, a multi-lingual collage of comments, a Slovakian woman has this to say: “I generally don’t like American writers, but this one is really special, readable yet in-depth and philosophical.”
Douglas Kennedy’s renown overseas was chronicled in a 2007 TIME article entitled “The Most Famous American Writer You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s hard to pigeonhole Kennedy’s ten thought-provoking-yet-page-turner novels, but their immense popularity in France — indeed, in all of Europe — is borne out by the droves of adoring fans who line up for his signature and a second’s worth of his Irish-American charm. (I’m not making that up. I’ve seen them.) A Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Kennedy keeps a home in Paris and speaks fluent French, but he was born and raised in New York City. His first three novels were published in the US, but when the last didn’t meet outsized expectations, U.S. publishers scattered. Alas for them – his fourth novel, The Pursuit of Happiness, sold more than 350,000 copies in the UK and more than 500,000 copies in France in translation alone.
The Soul Mate
Written more than a decade ago and more than 750 pages long, Blonde continues to fly off the shelf in French bookstores. The Falls won the 2005 Prix Femina for Foreign Literature. French director Laurence Cantet just brought out a film adaptation of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. I asked Joyce Carol Oates about her avid French following. “For me,” she says, “the very sound of French spoken is musical, beautiful, subtly cadenced.” Her involvement with French language began in high school; as an adult she has taught and published French literature. “This is my background for writing, and my relationship with the French reading public may be related to it.” She also praises her translators. But the French devour Oates’s dazzling, precise prose equally in English; at France’s largest English-language bookstore, WH Smith/Paris, along the Rue de Rivoli, Oates is one of the nine American authors of literary novels most in demand with customers. Perhaps her novels take French readers into an America that simultaneously surprises and confirms their expectations?
Philip Roth first won acclaim in France with Goodbye, Columbus in 1960; his fame was cemented with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. He’s since won the Prix de Meilleur livre étranger for American Pastoral and the Prix Médicis étranger for The Human Stain. The French often speak of a quasi-autobiographical quality in his works, citing it as a passageway to truths about certain periods of time and segments of society in America. It was during an interview about his most recent and apparently last novel, Nemesis, with the French publication, InRocks, that Roth chose to announce his intention to retire from writing fiction. The news spread like wildfire throughout France before it could even be picked up by a U.S. news agency.
Go to “books” on the French Amazon site, type in “Laura,” and the first prompt to come up will be “Laura Kasischke.” Kasischke’s most recent novel, The Raising, became a bestseller in France within a matter of days; it was shortlisted for the 2011 Prix Femina Étranger, and nominated for the JDD France Inter Prix and Telerama-France Culture. Be Mine and In a Perfect World have sold prodigiously. In the U.S., Kasischke, who teaches at U. Michigan, has probably won more acclaim for her poetry. She graciously points to “having a fantastic editor and press… [and] fantastic translators” when I ask her about the recognition for her novels in France. But Kasischke was the other female author on the list of nine top-selling American authors given to me by WH Smith/Paris — like Oates, she is being read both in translation and in English. “She is the painter of the American Midwest, an America where behind the walls of nice manners live individuals overwhelmed with sadness and boredom,” influential French journalist Francois Busnel stated on French television last year.
Whether set on the border areas of the U.S. and Mexico, in the South, or in post-apocalyptic landscape, Cormac McCarthy’s novels wax dark and darkly reflective. Oliver Cohen, Cormac McCarthy’s French editor, has explained their popularity in France thus: “McCarthy reveals a collective anguish, to which he figured out how to give a shape.” French novelist Emilie de Turckheim offered me for further insight: “[McCarthy] manages…. to use, with virtuosic erudition, all the lexical richness of his language… at same time as abusing and decomposing English syntax to create a language brutal, impressionistic, extraordinarily poetic, capable of mimicking the immense violence of everyday life.” The French routinely compare him to Faulkner, a deceased American author they venerate. The French translation of No Country for Old Men sold about 100,000 copies. La Route, aka The Road, has to date sold over 600,000, with no sign of abating.
According to Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English-language bookstore near Notre Dame Cathedral, Shakespeare & Company, Russell Banks and Jim Harrison are among the five contemporary American authors most frequently requested by their French patrons. (The other three are Auster, Kennedy, and David Foster Wallace.) Banks and Harrison use literary realism to take their readers into richly tinted but not always rosy pockets of modern America. Harrison, whose numerous fiction works include Legends of the Fall and just-released The River Swimmer, lives in Montana; in France, he’s been described as “the bard of America’s wide-open spaces… of the eternal conflict between nature and society.” Like McCarthy, Harrison is considered a literary descendant of Faulkner. Russell Banks, whose many novels include The Sweet Hereafter and most recently The Lost Memory of Skin, lives in upstate New York; InRocks has called him “the best portraitist of marginal society in America.” In 2011, he was awarded him the rank of Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. Russell and Harrison both also write poetry — a sort of win-win, all things considered.
Ultimately, finding readership in France or elsewhere is like any love affair: alchemy, composed of varied, delicate elements. “Reading, an open door to the enchanted world,” wrote French Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac.
Image via christine zenino/Flickr
When I pick up a new piece of fiction, it’s hard to resist a story of girls gone bad. Stories of young women, brimming with newfound beauty and sexuality, and lacking means of escape, make for fascinating fiction. Just think of the desperately sad and self-destructive Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides, who one by one chose to remove themselves from a world that wouldn’t let them fly free. Their allure is in their violent and completely comprehensible exit strategies: as the boys who loved them later said, “We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together… We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.” These dreamy girls hold a special place in the hearts of all female readers, right next to the girl gang of Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire, the scorned Abigail Williams and her band of pretenders in The Crucible, and in the residents of McLean hospital in Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. The tendency towards violence, towards rebellion, is the same tendency as a caged animal would throw against the bars. For readers, no other circumstances are required to make the actions of these women plausible — and heartbreaking.
It seemed, initially, Mary Stewart Atwell would take the same direction in her novel, Wild Girls. Focusing her narrative on the small Appalachian town of Swan River, Atwell gives us a community famous for its regular outbursts of violence, destruction, and death — all propagated by terrifying teenage girls. Kate Riordan, our protagonist and mild-mannered resident of Swan River, is willing to concede that the history of violence is the strongest thing the town has to recommend it. “It was our thing, our trivia fact, and it occurs to me now that if the Chamber of Commerce had known what they were doing, people could have come to us the way they go to the Massachusetts town where Lizzie Borden axed her parents.” The town has a significant economic and privilege divide, between the residents able to send their young daughters to the posh Swan River Academy and the residents from the wrong side of town, the part that includes the Bloodwort Commune, a small community of down-on-its-luck former hippies who dabble in illicit drugs, sex, and even the occult. Kate is a local girl attending the Academy, and so she regularly fluctuates between a resentment of the Academy’s elitism (and its queen bee cliques, lead by her wealthy friend Willow) and a fear of the threats emerging from the Bloodwort compound, which suffers from its own wild-girl initiated violence at the beginning of the novel.
Each girl in Swan River is a ticking bomb — with the lore of the wild girls comes the assumption that every girl is at least a little bit susceptible once she hits puberty. “When you turned sixteen everybody started to look at you as if you were the suicide bomber at the checkpoint, the enemy in disguise.” Crystal Lemons, a girl from the Bloodwort community, was always a bit of a threat; she had, Kate says, “an interesting ripeness about her, an early voluptuousness…grown up too soon.” When Crystal becomes a wild girl and burns down a huge portion of the commune, it comes as no surprise. For if what makes a Swan River girl go wild is her circumstances, then it makes everyone in the town and academy an accessory to the violence. Kate’s friend Willow is exceptionally pretty and popular, but her chameleon-like tendency to adapt to please others raises a red flag. Changing her eye color with contacts, talking about summer homes and dressage with the Academy’s trust fund babies — Willow is playing roles with everyone, including Kate, and the sense that all girls have to negotiate their identities carefully in this community would drive anyone to madness. The threat of going “wild,” of exploding under the pressure of performance, is more powerful when Atwell treats the conditions as the cause. Gossip, prejudice, extreme poverty, and limited opportunities — all are present in Swan River, and so there’s plenty of fodder for a hotbed of violence and insurrection. In building up an Applachian crucible of backstabbing and suspicion, Atwell seems to be dabbling in the territory of Daniel Woodrell, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Donald Ray Pollock. The Swan River setting, by turns bleakly abandoned and claustrophobically crowded, makes for a perfect prison for the girls to rail against.
If Atwell had stopped right there, Wild Girls would be a treatise on female rage, a rage justified by years of subjugation and humiliation. But on top of this sociological mystery, she spreads a thick layer of supernatural schmaltz, neutering the real-life explanations for the violence and taking away the female agency in it. When Kate’s older sister, Maggie, shifts from being a motivated student and driven young woman to a wild girl, it is attributed not to a condition, but to a sudden supernatural occurrence. Kate awakes one evening at the Academy to find her sister glowing, “not focused like a flashlight beam but diffused, sourceless…the room got as hot as a sauna. Maggie knocked over the bookcase, smashed the CD player, and grinned up at us from the wreckage, hands on hips.” A few seconds later, she takes a leap out the window, the glass holding “the outline of Maggie’s body, the lines clean as if cut by a torch.” Maggie had no incentive to flee, to act out, to become a “wild girl” — she had her whole future ahead, and yet Atwell has her saddled by a glowing light and a sudden desire to destroy property. When Atwell lays out the rest of the mystery, linking the Academy girls together in a cult-like plot to destroy the town, she gives too much credit to all the wrong forces: to a handsome and manipulative Academy teacher, a series of suspicious clues at the Bloodwort commune, and multiple acts of horrifying violence. All the circumstances about poverty, education, and female expression come to naught.
It may be that true-to-life stories of teenage rage don’t interest Atwell — and it’s problematic that, regardless of their execution, stories like these can quickly fall into Lifetime movie-of-the week territory. (After all, where would Drew Barrymore and Tori Spelling be without their “good-girls-gone-bad” miniseries?) But substituting supernatural forces for real circumstances removes what was initially, for me, the true delight of Wild Girls: the exploration of how small communities can become pressure cookers for young women, and how the roles we’re expected to play during the journey from little girls to teenagers could drive anybody to violence. The supernatural and mundane can live side by side; writers like Karen Russell and Shirley Jackson manage to do this in all their stories, imbuing small towns and Florida swamps with mythical, lyrical language and extraordinary possibilities. But they all begin with supernatural launching pads: we know, when we enter Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, that it’s not merely economics contributing to the Bigtree family’s woes. But I believe more in natural horror, the gut-wrenching retreat we long for at the end of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, when we discover that human failure can be just as violent, as cruel, and as devastating as anything that might emerge from a deep dark cave or a scorching wildfire.
A few weeks ago, in many towns like Atwell’s Swan River, Halloween brought a special attraction to town: a fundamentalist Christian tradition known as “Hell House.” This “scared straight” performance is designed to keep teenagers away from sinful behaviors by showing off their dangerous consequences. The tableaus of horror and gore require no monsters and demons — instead, we see a girl lying in a pool of blood, the victim of a botched abortion after having premarital sex. Or a girl takes drugs at a rave — she is later raped, and then commits suicide in despair. After each of these tableaus, Satan appears and drags the victim off to hell. One in five attendees at a Hell House vocalized a renewed commitment to Jesus. If Atwell contributed a tableau to a Hell House, it might go like this: a handful of girls giggle and gather over an old spell book or Ouija board, prodding each other to up the supernatural ante. Dabble in the occult, and you’ll later be served up as a human sacrifice.
Granted, this tableau has a lot of flash to it, but I personally find the horrors of real life to be far less giggle-inducing. Why build a hellmouth when you already have high school?