Saturday, October 02, 2010

Solstice by Joyce Carol Oates

I'd always been a bit confused by Joyce Carol Oates - there were so many books! Anyway, I picked up this Virago, "Solstice", a novel from 1985, from a local charity shop and read it in a couple of sittings. It tells the story of Monica, a woman nearly 30 years old, who is running from a divorce and starts teaching at a prep school. She meets Sheila Trask, a widowed painter, a dozen years older than her, who is the local celebrity-eccentric. Told mostly from Monica's point of view we see their relationship develop from chance encounter to intense but unresolved involvement. The stolid Monica used to be a "golden girl", whilst Sheila is an exotic. What is the nature of the friendship? What is the attraction? It's the first Oates I've read, and I was immediately struck by its confident and almost forensic characterisation. Both characters are drawn vividly. It has something of the Thelma and Louise about it - with two lonely women with their own secrets becoming close, dangerously close friends. Sheila is an artist and at first Monica has little interest in the world - indeed, Sheila keeps it in the background - her "other life". The limits of friendship are played out as well as their intensities. Monica has herself a secret; a scar the only outward sign. Oates is brilliant on a certain gauche bohemianism, and in some ways this could be seen as a satire on the American art scene of the sixties, seventies and eighties with its "superstar" artists and its particular "fashions" for "scenes." Yet, well sketched as this backdrop is, it's only a backdrop. The smalltown gossip and the mundane life of a prep school teacher are as important. As the friendship deepens so its tensions expand. This is love, intense, but unexpressed, always close to breaking. Monica becomes something of a Toklas to Sheila's Stein, sorting out the paperwork, and steering Sheila towards the long-awaited solo show that the latter seems intent on putting off forever. The two women go out flirting in redneck bars, until something goes wrong, and Monica refuses to go again. The book is an emotionally charged portrait of the changing status of their relationship, and there is always the sense of some coming foreboding, yet it is not Sheila, but Monica who has the eventual breakdown. Here the book fragments, and the change of the last few pages lacks the tautness of what has gone before. Considering there has been so much emotional honesty, Oates resorts to a slightly baffling series of inferences. It is Monica who has a breakdown, but it's hard to be sure which particular thing causes it. Here its as if Oates has no real way of ending the book. They are not to become lovers, though it is clear that Monica loves Sheila; her breakdown is foreshadowed throughout the book - by the breakdown of her marriage, perhaps by her own suicidal tendencies(?), her aborted child, rough sex with one of Sheila's friends that may or may not be rape. Men are all but absent from the book, except for their destructiveness. "Solstice" has no more meaning in the novel than it was the title of a sculpture by Sheila's dead husband. There's the smalltown America of Updike, and perhaps more accurately, Lorrie Moore, in this story, and something of Henry James' internal landscapes of emotional intensity - yet with a violent physicality that see both characters embroiled in battles for their sanity, their self-worth. The shifting sands of an intense friendship are adeptly handled, and only the need for a denouement - and the uncovering of past secrets - seems a cheat. Like Anne Enright's "The Gathering" the past boils up, late in the book, yet there seems no reason why we as readers couldn't know more. For much of the novel we see things from Monica's perspective, then at the end find everything fragments - her breakdown, her illness, her loss of job - all seem to have been sprung on us in an attempt to finish what was otherwise such a taut novel. Its the first book of the prolific Oates I've read, but I'll certainly look to reading more; a good, but slightly unsatisfying work.


Dave Haslam said...

JCO is remarkably good at some things - I've read eight or nine of her novels (still only a small proportion of them!) and dozens of short stories. The short story format suits her I think, in that it plays to a couple of her major strengths; setting up an intense, intriguing, slightly unsettling scenario, and finding a voice. Some of the novels dribble away a bit, don't keep up the intensity and quality. The best collection is 'Faithless' I think.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Thanks for the recommendation - with such a massive amount of books its hard to know where to start. I'm sure I've a story or two in an anthology, I'll have to dig out. Hope the Frantzen went well on Sunday.