May 12, 2008

Mini-review: "The Gravedigger's Daughter," by Joyce Carol Oates

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)

The Gravedigger's Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates
The Gravedigger's Daughter (book; 2007)
By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco/HarperCollins / ISBN: 978-0-06-123682-2

So what's the dark fear that lies in the inner heart of all erudite nerds? Namely this -- that no matter how educated, intelligent or well-read you are, there are always going to be a certain amount of very well-known authors you have never read at all, not even one single page of, and that at any moment this fact might be discovered by your fellow erudite nerds. Just take me, for example, who can count among completely unread authors such stalwarts as (deep breath, Jason, deep breath) Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, Augusten Burroughs, Dave Eggers, and dozens more embarrassing admissions. So needless to say that I was excited to recently come across the latest novel by Joyce Carol Oates at my local library, 2007's The Gravedigger's Daughter, because Oates is yet another of these classic "everyone has read at least one book by her" authors who I haven't read myself; and that's apparently a shame, according to my fellow book-loving geeks, given that Oates (a lit professor at Princeton) has been a multiple nominee over the years of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN/Faulkner Award and Orange Prize, not to mention the actual winner of an NBA (in 1970), a Stoker Award and a dozen other accolades. And this is to say nothing of The Gravedigger's Daughter in particular, which made the New York Times' "10 Most Notable Books of the Year" list last year; and of course all of this is small potatoes compared to the greatest achievement of Oates' entire career so far, making it into the Revered And Blessed Oprah's Book Club Hallowed Be Her Name Amen.

So I checked it out and sat down a couple of weeks ago to read it; and then about a week later, found myself finally giving up on it for good around page 250 or so (or roughly halfway through), after two days of literally dreading the idea of even physically picking the book up again. So what happened? Well, to answer that, maybe it would be better for me to ask you a series of questions, questions I've been starting to wonder more and more about the longer CCLaP has been open. Ready?

--Why is it that almost all novels revered by the academic community principally feature characters who are constantly in a state of being slightly miserable? And not miserable as in "interesting" miserable, but miserable as in "that whiny professor in the corner of the room who ruins every godd-mn party they're invited to" miserable?

--Why is it that almost all award-winning novels go way out of their way, deliberately out of their way, to show off what pretty language that author knows, completely removing the reader from the natural pace and rhythm of the story itself? Why can no academically revered novel simply let the reader get lost in the actual story, which is the entire point of a novel even existing?*

--Why is it that academes are so fascinated by mediocre EveryPeople living in bland surroundings, who do nothing with their unremarkable lives and yet somehow still manage to make a whole series of terrible life decisions? Why do so many people in the academic community think that this makes for fascinating literature, and why do they think we should sympathize or even care about such oblivious, socially retarded chumps?

It's the great mystery of the arts, I'm beginning to understand, as CCLaP has me reading academically-revered award-winning novels on a regular basis for the first time in my life; that the exact novels most lauded by this community are the very ones least fitting the definition of an entertaining novel, the ones that instead most call attention to themselves as "precious works of art" more fit for years of overeducated analysis instead of simple pleasure. And in this I guess the so-called "mainstream literature" community is just like any community of genre fans as well, in that they are constantly in need of justifying their existence too, constantly in need of explaining why anyone should devote such time and energy doing delicate little analyses of barely readable books. It's disappointing to be sure, to realize that these revered prize lists are in actuality not a reliable way at all to simply find good books by good authors; it's a lesson about the arts I'm reminded of again by The Gravedigger's Daughter, a lesson I think I'll be paying more attention to in the future.

Out of 10: 4.8

*And since we're on the subject....Sheesh, Oates, will you please stop using exclamation marks! Over and over! In awkward places in your paragraphs! To make your point! Crazy you are driving me! Good literature this is not! Oh, and speaking of which, why like Yoda all your Jewish characters talk? Slightly offensive in a hazily defined way it is! UGH, this book drove me crazy.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:01 PM, May 12, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |