JOYCE CAROL OATES writes a lot. I don't mean that she's prolific; I mean she's an android. She puts out books like most people deal cards. She's pumped out scores of novels and novellas, a jillion short stories, and a handful of plays and essays and books of criticism. She's also written books for young adults and children, and there are probably a couple geared toward infants too. Fact of the matter is, I'm not entirely convinced that even Oates has read all of her work.
I'm commenting on this because when you're dealing with a body of work this substantial, you've got to wonder where to start, and you want that starting point to be good; I mean, no one's ever said, "You know, I've never read Shakespeare. I think I'll start with Timon of Athens." You sort of work your way to that.
This September, Modern Library reissues in paperback Oates's Wonderland Quartet, consisting of A Garden of Earthly Delights, Expensive People, Them, and Wonderland, all four of which either won or almost won the National Book Award. Is this the best of Oates? How would I know? I've only read a few dozen of her works. But it is certain that these are the novels that turned the world's attention to Oates.
The Wonderland Quartet are books of struggle against poverty and violence, against social class; these characters struggle harder than Oates's printer, and, when you really get down to it, this quartet ain't that funny. Take Them, for example. Who are these them? In her afterword, Oates says: "The title Them came to me as inspiration, with its sly suggestion that there is in fact a them and an us; in our democratic nation, a category of them at whom we can gaze with pity, awe, revulsion, moral superiority, as if across an abyss; a them not entirely civilized, yet eager to 'rise' in class; a them who constitute the ideal, impressionable, ever-naive and ever-hopeful consumers of American dream-products." In other words, them are the people you see on Cops, their chests puffed up with that shoulda-coulda-woulda chip on their shoulders. In still other words, them are the people you see when you visit your hometown.
Poor, violent migrant workers make up A Garden of Earthly Delights, while the titular fourth in the Wonderland Quartet can be best illustrated by Amazon.com customer reviewer L.M. Young (Marietta, Georgia): "I was forced to read this book in college … I finally gave up halfway through and threw the book against the wall." I think we can all appreciate that sentiment. Expensive People begins with the festive line, "I was a child murderer." Joyce Carol Oates tries to act so nice with her old-lady first name and her breakfast-y last name, but something spooky lurks behind those big nerdy glasses. And it's not just the menace following that line. There's evil in the air, I tell you; no one can write that much without help from dark forces. I, for one, don't trust anyone who can be solemn and comical, gothic and prim, weighty and light, and then put it all together and call it Wonderland. But until I can prove that Joyce Carol Oates is an agent of evil, I have no other choice but to continue reading her work, however squinty-eyed my suspicion gets.