Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Black Water, by Joyce Carol Oates

[Wikipedia link for basic plot outline and some background]

An intriguing but not particularly engaging book, Black Water is as strongly unified as a fable, every element a meaningful contributor to one idea and one question generated by that idea. Yet this unity is a strength only if you find the idea sharp and the question provocative. I did, but the book doesn't really do all that much to help you to find them so; I feel that in a not very different mood, I would not have been terribly interested.

The idea, as I see it is this: that there are masculine and feminine modes or kinds of invasion—invasion is the master motif of the novella, but it takes both forms. There is the bluntly assertive invasiveness of The Senator, who forces his thick tongue into Kelly's mouth when he kisses her, an event recalled many times over in Kelly's recollection. The Senator's driving—crude turns and erratic accelerations that ultimately force the car into the water—is also an extended invasion of night and space and nature.

The feminine mode of invasion is represented by the obvious formal connection between the way Kelly's narrated recollections lap at and eventually immerse her consciousness and the way the water she enters laps at and eventually immerses her body. Oates creates tides, ripples, waves, breakers, swells, currents, undertows of thought—the metaphors can only really be obvious, so tight is the connection between thought and water. After all, don't we call it stream-of-consciousness?

To say that this form of invasion is feminine is no doubt both tenuous and tendentious, but it is a tendency I think Oates backs up consistently. There is little doubt that she has chosen a politician as her main male character because politics is precisely the stereotypically male form of invasiveness: the politician must make himself a part of your life, must thrust himself into your existence in order to claim your attention and your support.

There is even a playful exchange between Kelly and The Senator on this subject, after The Senator refers to man as "the political animal":
It was unlike her to be so bold, so flirtatious. Asking The Senator archly, "'Man'—and not woman? Isn't 'woman' a political animal too?"

"Some women. Sometimes. We know that. But, most of the time, women find politics boring. The power-play of male egos. Like war. Eh? Boring in its monotony, beneath all the turmoil?"

But Kelly was not to be led. As if this were a seminar, and Kelly Kelleher one of the stars, she said frowning, "Women can't afford to think of politics as 'boring'! Not at this point in history. The Supreme Court, abortion—"
The Senator concludes this seminar by kissing Kelly forcefully: "how swiftly this was happening, how swiftly after all, yet as he kissed her after the first moment she stood her ground firmly, hells dug into the crusty sand, she leaned to the man taking the kiss as if it were her due, a natural and inevitable and desired development of their conversation. And bold too, giddy too, parrying his tongue with her teeth."

The two instances of the word 'bold' so close together here—both times referring to Kelly's unusually assertive behavior—are belied by the obviously greater assertiveness of The Senator: Kelly takes the kiss "as if it were her due"—she is being invaded and is trying to act as if the invasion were natural.

Yet if Kelly is not usually so bold, what is she? Oates writes minutely to create an exact model of her mind, dilating almost compulsively upon the same fragmentary thoughts, the same micro-sensations, returning again and again to the ephemerality of all the tiny thoughts that anticipated Kelly's death. Kelly is being acted upon, invaded just as surely by Oates (and by the reader) as she was by The Senator. In this case too, Kelly is positioned as if this invasion were natural—this is the reading experience, after all, for so many novels—yet as Oates continues her repeated probings into Kelly's mind, that common reading experience is made uncomfortable, unpleasant, like realizing you've been staring at someone on the subway only when they look up at you.

Early in the novel, Oates acknowledges this invasiveness; she takes a step back from her submersion in Kelly's mind to describe a limit for the novelist's ability to enter the mind of her character:
In the subsequent hours, Kelly was to radically revise her opinion of The Senator.
It could not be said that in those six hours Kelly Kelleher had fallen in love with The Senator, nor could it be said that The Senator had fallen in love with her, for such matters are private and unknowable; and what the future may have brought (in contrast to what the events of that night did in fact bring) will forever remain unknowable.
Except: Kelly certainly revised her opinion.
Thinking how instructive, how purifying for the soul (smiling into a mirror of the guest room that was hers at Buffy's would have been hers again for the night of the Fourth had she not decided so precipitously to accompany The Senator back to the mainland) to learn that you are fallible, to be proven wrong.
Even if it's merely interior, private proof.
Even if the one you've so carelessly misjudged never knows.
The unexplained arbitrariness of Oates's distinction between what is "private and unknowable" and what is accessible to the novelist (even though it's "interior, private") suggests an intentional anxiety about the invasiveness of the novelist in prying into the character's thoughts. Where can this line be drawn? And why does the novelist herself draw it?

I don't think this form of invasion is as clearly gendered as The Senator's, but its clear opposition to the masculine mode of invasion is fairly clear. And there is a tendency to associate the intense novelistic depiction of consciousness with femininity—Richardson's heroines and Austen, with her "free indirect discourse, but more significantly Woolf and Joyce's Penelope section of Ulysses, perhaps the ne plus ultra of stream-of-consciousness.

The question comes about when one weighs these modes of invasion against one another: bluntly, which is worse? The novel does seem to ask this question, as the issue of blame is so inextricably linked to its subject matter, the Chappaquiddick incident. Oates doesn't unequivocally reach the same conclusion so many Americans did at the time of Chappaquiddick: that The Senator did it. Kelly Kelleher in many moments almost blames herself, blames her instant dependence on The Senator.

Of course, Oates does make it clear that the accident was unambiguously The Senator's fault, but by invading Kelly's own doubts and diffidence, she encourages the reader to begin to walk backward from The Senator's blatant irresponsibility and towards Kelly's naïvete as a more comprehensively descriptive explanation for the accident. This is, of course, blaming the victim, and once the reader realizes that, she recoils (I hope).

What this does, though, is to tether that "blame the victim" impulse to the process of invading Kelly's consciousness; at the same moment that one recoils from victim-blaming, one also recoils from the depth of this invasion. Only by reaching a point where we inhabit Kelly's self-doubts—a point which permits us, momentarily, to blame her—do we begin to pull back from the novel itself.

As I said, I very nearly did not find myself engaged by the novel in the first place, and despite being engaged by it, I still didn't find it captivating nor was I much gratified by my engagement with it. I do think it's necessary to note, however, that Oates's heavy-handedness (readily apparent from the selections I cited above) is necessitated by what she wants to do; if that is a fault, it's a fault you have to accept to get anything out of Black Water.

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