Saturday, July 12, 2008

My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates

I read Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, My Sister, My Love, months ago, and I had been waiting for it to come out to see what other reviewers and readers thought of it. But before responses to the novel surfaced, breaking news on the actual murder case on which My Sister, My Love is based flooded screens, air waves, and newspapers. This is so Oates. She is so attuned to the collective psyche. The collision of the release if this searing novel with the announcement that improved DNA identification technologies have exonerated JonBenet Ramsey’s family affirms Oates’ attunement to the gestalt. What a gift she has for turning the true stories that rivet our attention, mostly grim outbreaks of violence tinged with aberrant eroticism and certain madness, into fiction of tremendous dark power.

It’s obvious why JonBenet Ramsey’s murder fascinates Oates, a brilliant and daring writer fixated on the valor and vulnerability of girls in an aggressively sexualized and murderous world. She wrote a stinging essay about the 1996 murder of the six-year-old beauty princess during the media frenzy generated by the grossly mishandled case. In My Sister, My Love, she fictionalizes the family horror implicit in the Ramsey tragedy in a novel of ferocious intensity and nervy wit.

In Oates’ tale, the Rampikes live uneasily in wealthy, white Fair Hills, New Jersey. Bix is a big, shambling, sexy, and ruthless guy intent on getting mega-rich in the bio-tech industry. Bosomy, high-strung, and needy Betsey longs for acceptance among the town’s thin and snooty elite wives, and tries to use her jittery son, Skyler, as bait. But it’s her second child, anxious and brittle Edna Louise, who fulfills Betsey’s dream of fame and fortune. Her vehicle is figure-skating, a heady mix of athleticism and exhibitionism perfectly suited to Betsey’s mania for capitalizing on feminine charms to get maximum attention. Oates’ choice of ice-skating is inspired. It’s a cold, hard, and precarious realm fraught with prurience of the pedophile kind—her descriptions of Tots on Ice competitions are gloriously creepy. And her choice of narrator is equally brilliant: Skyler tells the story of his sister’s grotesque transformation into a gauchely make-up and provocatively costumed ice fairy a decade after her death. He himself has barely survived his toxic family, and his chronicle of two adults who never should have had children in an affluent and deeply neurotic society that reduces childhood to an alphabet stew of psychiatric and neurological syndromes and doses them with fistfuls of pharmaceuticals instead of love is a mordantly satirical indictment of upper-class child abuse during the pell-mell greed of the corporate grabfest of the 1990s. Both neglected Skyler and his poor little sister––renamed Bliss and kept out of school and subjected to extreme and painful practice sessions, beauty treatments, and drug regimes (“I’m not a little girl. I’m a thousand years old.”)––are victims of their monstrous mother’s misery over her husband’s incessant infidelities, a storm of hurt and fury young Skyler struggles to understand.

Oates’ insights into her narrator’s psyche when he is nine and nineteen and astonishing in their nuance and stinging humor, culminiating in his fascination and disgust with atrocities of the media coverage in “Tabloid Hell,” and the fiendish cultism in “cybercesspoolspace.” Oates reachers higher peaks with each work, and this is a stop-in-your-tracks novel of extraordinary dimension and power, sympathy and indignation.

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