Wednesday, 17 June 2009

them (Joyce Carol Oates)

--The blurb--
them is the third novel in the Wonderland quartet, exploring social class in America and the inner lives of young Americans. As powerful and relevant today as it was on its initial publication in 1969, them chronicles the tumultuous lives of a family living on the edge of ruin in the Detroit slums, from the 1930s to the 1967 race riots. Oates traces the aspirations and struggles of Loretta Wendall, a dreamy young mother who is filled with regret by the age of sixteen, and the subsequent destinies of her children, Maureen and Jules, who must fight to survive in a world of violence and danger.
adapted from Modern Library book jacket

--The review--
Newark, New Jersey, has allegedly changed very little since the days of the 1969 riots, with particularly the black working class being badly supported, especially by the police force, which does not accurately represent the social and ethnic mix of the city (leading to further crime owing to difficulties relating to the city's youth population). It is of this world and its creation that Oates writes, and a world which resonates strongly with certain youth subcultures today, in cities such as London, England, where gang warfare problems with sometimes racially-motivated knife and gun crime still persist. Equally, the novel shows that then, just as now, those involved, whether directly or indirectly can be painfully young: Jules, one of the principal players, is said to have started smoking at the age of ten. This theme is highly relevant to the murder of Rhys Jones in Wales in the summer of 2007 - being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was shot dead aged ten when crossing gunfire between enemy gangs.

Seeing the family's bad beginnings at the start of Oates' novel, one does not (perhaps strangely) feel the derision that one might feel when looking on a similar family setup today. Instead, the perceptible humanity urges the reader to hope for the story's main characters and believe that they might be able to fulfil their potential. This is built up wonderfully, with Jules starting out as an earnest young boy who falls in with the wrong crowd before discovering the pleasures of true love and good honest work, and his sister Maureen being a diligent student who paves a bright future for herself. Oates effectively creates palpable possibilities for these children of an unfortunate background to elevate themselves from their poverty (far rarer then than it is now), and only the climax of the 1967 riots (the book's final scenes) brings us the truth.

While the novel is long at over 500 pages, the characters and settings are well-sculpted and easy to visualise, which in combination with a taut plot make for riveting reading. The children's early lives are whizzed through, with more focus being placed on their teens and twenties, but this in no way inhibits the depth with which the reader gets to know the characters, although this initial whistle-stop style takes some perseverance. Oates also paints a realistic portrait that shows up all the characters' flaws as well as their more personable qualities, in conjunction with bringing to life a realistic (or what I imagine to be realistic) picture of the era and its social situation which just sucks you in.

Despite starting with this quartet from book 3, this made no difference to my enjoyment of the novel (especially since the link between all four books in the quartet is thematic, rather than being plot- or character-based), and was a welcome inauguration to Oates' work. This is an engaging and illuminating portrait of real-life American history lifts up any masks that the readers may have had over their eyes, opens real social wounds, and addresses important questions about whether we make our lives, or whether our lives make us.

Other works by Joyce Carol Oates (select list)
The Gravedigger's Daugher (2007)
I'll Take You There (2002)
My Heart Laid Bare (1998)
We Were The Mulvaneys (1996)
American Appetites (1989)
You Must Remember This (1987)
Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984)
A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982)
Unholy Loves (1979)
Son of the Morning (1978)
The Assassins: A Book of Hours (1975)
Do With Me What You Will (1973)
Wonderland (1971)*
The Wheel of Love and other stories (1970; short story collection)
Expensive People (1967)*
A Garden of Earthly Delights (1967)*
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (1966; short story collection)
With Shuddering Fall (1964)
By The North Gate (1963; short story collection)

*part of the Wonderland quartet

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