Review of Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
I found this novel, above all, to be exuberant, ambitious, bold, and extremely readable.
JCO has wrung all the suggestion and menace she could from her sumptuous setting. Not familiar with the author’s infinite body of work – I have only stumbled across a few short stories, liked them, and never sought out any of the novels before recently – I was genuinely surprised. The structure of the novel may be disorienting for some, and the elevated style is extremely old fashioned, and includes the extensive use of parenthetical statements, as well as a dangerous number of adverbs. But as a historical novel, and one intended for entertainment, it is very effective. Plus, these “flaws” are mere stylistic choices, and I am sure the author has mastered any number of styles, judging by the variety of genres and modes she has dipped into during her Methuselah-esque career.
An artful storyteller, she quickly establishes the Gothic dimensions of her project, sets down roots in the territory of nightmare and the macabre, amplifies the atmosphere and aesthetic to be found in Hawthorne and Poe, and infuses the manor at the heart of the book with an astonishing level of detail, while managing to sustain a menacing tension throughout.
It culminates into a sprawling, violent, exuberant masterpiece of sorts. She might have chosen to focus on fewer characters, to tell a seamless, chronological tale, but she deviates, streaks wildly through time and dramatic scenes, only to twist her storytelling into contortions of the odd and grotesque. Some pieces of the resultant mosaic are elegant in excess, reverence-inducing, heart-stopping, guttural, and others are irreverent, almost silly, charming and straightforward accounts of character pratfalls and baboonery.
Dealing with 6 generations, all equally eccentric, of an impressively dysfunctional family, it is a chronicle, but not in the traditional sense. I knew I was in the hands of a gifted storyteller from the start, because I didn’t care about the artful jumps through time, the skipping around, the seemingly random characters introduced and reintroduced at different stages. The whole thing was good, and of course, the pieces begin to fit together by and by. JCO is a literary giantess, and I will have to begin reading the rest of her oeuvre, over the inevitable decades it will take to do so, especially since she keeps adding on new, lengthy, breathless masterpieces year by year, as if she were writing them in her sleep. Someone, probably, will ghost-write her future novels via Ouija board. This is the first in a vast Gothic saga of historical monoliths, and a thrilling entry into her world. Any story including bears and haunting entities, malevolent cats and declining aristocracy is bound to be interesting. The characters must deal with acts of God, malingering psychic children, and worst of all, each other.
The novel is also pervaded by Biblical language and Biblical fear, trembling, uncertainty, and shadows in human shape sleepwalking through immense hallways, closed off rooms, and across the eternally frozen lake. These landscapes and interiors are no less dark and foreboding than the corridors of their minds.
Some sinister repeated refrains remind us of the fates of previous Bellefleurs echoing through the ages. With intellectual daring, the author explores the dark secrets, the bizarre aberrations, and the obscene lusts and fascinating horrors lurking in the well-to-do manor-dwellers’ hearts. With an endless array of historical details, the interconnected web of stir-crazy, passionate humanity will stick with me. It’s splendidly perverse in parts, particularly the supernatural deaths, which are morbid but somehow fitting
“The dark, chaotic, unfathomable pool of time,” she mentions is of course, Lake Noir. The complex quilts woven by Mathilde symbolize the patchwork family and its incomprehensible disintegrations through time. Their family fortune does not make them immune to misfortune. The infidelity, the hatred, the pettiness, the irresponsible philandering! Those qualities propel them toward inevitably doomed ends.
Occasionally excessive, frenzied, ornate, or melodramatic, but usually mesmeric, rhythmic, and harrowing, I can’t recommend the book enough. Its great moments of unexpected horror intrude, entice, and punctuate the well-conceived tragedies. At the very least, you will witness a huge range of character emotions and viewpoints.
My favorite chapter recounts Nightshade’s solution to the Bellefleur rat infestation. It’s an example of her humor in a dark, and provocative light. Vanity, dissolution, antisocial behavior, anxious, ignorant fear of outsiders, bloody vengeance, and any number of other distinctly human flaws present themselves throughout. For some of the 49 principles characters, their injuries define their behavior in unexpected ways. Wounds, both physical and psychological, contribute to their growth and descent.
JCO reminds us of the riches to be found in literature. Her opulent output, her boldness, her bravado, all reinforce her fiction’s ability to move us. I know my image of the author will evolve as I delve deep into her novels, stories, journals and that notorious biography. All in good time.
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