Joyce Carol Oates' 1967 novel A Garden of Earthly Delights is a Novel: scroll-like, spacious, like the books I read when I was young, before I ever considered writing one. A book I took with me everywhere last June, in all sorts of bags and on all kinds of tables and shelves and maybe brought close to certain kinds of water. The book beside me all the time. Inevitably, the book colored my life; I would come home on certain nights and something would’ve happened and in order to fall asleep I would read the book, and so always I would remember the two together, the memories and the book.
There is such spaciousness in a novel; but Oates uses that spaciousness like a collector filling every tiny crevice of a mansion. There is a great bulk of text, and all of it worthwhile in bearing direct relevance to the thrust of the entire novel. Every word a horn, a violin, fundamental to the symphony.
The way Oates follows her characters over the spans of entire lives has affected me just as much as her utility of language. A Garden of Earthly Delights begins with Clara Walpole’s birth: her parents, in a truck full of migratory workers, collide with a car “on a country highway.” The final scene is Clara, paralyzed in her mid-forties, in Lakeshore Nursing Home. The stamina required to follow a character through this vast expanse is no small feat; to follow along in a manner as unabashed and honest as Oates’ does not happen nearly enough in contemporary fiction. Maybe I’ve been reading too many short stories, where (excluding long pieces that rest very closely on one character throughout, like Roberto Bolaño’s “Anne Moore’s Life”) I end feeling to have gripped people quite shallowly, murkily, the story’s allure having come somewhere in style or situation and less on unflinching dedication to years of brutal rendering of character. We are humans, after all: there is something to be said for witnessing the passage of time, whether on the page or in the world, it is how we ourselves know we are here.
This novel sent me back to one that impressed deeply upon me when I was sixteen, Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s dedication to character implicates the reader in cathartic, instantaneous friendship. Oates’s writing brought on the realization that I am ready to move beyond the idea that has grown like a crag into my recent writing life, that an excessive focus on character implies overwrought sentimentality, and remember what it is I think a novel should be.
In Oates’s novel, fathers and husbands, husbands and fathers, share an eerie allegiance. What precipitates Clara’s running away from home: “Clara noticed a man with blond hair at one of the back tables; her heart gave a lurch, she thought it might be her father” (103). She gets into his car, her escape route from her violent father: “Clara smelled whiskey around him; it reminded her of Carleton” (105). Just being on the road away from him, in the car of a man who resembles him, leads her to call him “Carleton.” Already his status is fading in her mind.
After years of pining for him, Lowry sleeps with Clara. This is the scene that precedes it:
But she stepped out of the water and onto the dried rocks, which had a curious texture now beneath her cold feet, like cloth. She spread her toes on the whitened rocks as if they were fingers grasping at something. Then she saw, between her toes, a dark filmy soft thing like a worm. “Jesus!” Clara said, kicking. She jumped backward and landed on the other foot and kicked again violently. “Get it off, Lowry!” she screamed. “Lowry—help—a bloodsucker—“ (187).
Rather than taking her blood from her, Lowry eventually makes Clara pregnant, then
abandons her. The way that Oates rendered this shift in Clara’s identity, as she becomes a wealthy man’s mistress, living alone with her child in a remote country house the man has given her. When she finally becomes a wife, her identity continues to rupture, and by the time Swan is old enough to shoot a gun and kill his step-brother, Clara seems as luxuriant and idle as a well-tended housecat. Oates frequently compares Clara’s features or movements to those made by cats—I appreciated the way this strong, directed symbology recurred consistently throughout the novel, and seemed fitting for the insular, cared-for quality of Clara’s life at the novel’s end.
I have to say a word for Oates’s dialogue, particularly the way she lets it weave through the text of a paragraph, rather than setting it apart, characters’ speech as direct and unquestionable as the narration. Like this:
“You’re lying. I can see in your face you killed something already and you’re going to kill lots of things.” Lowry’s own face twisted into something ugly that might have been there all along, through the years, without him or Clara knowing of it. Clara saw how his mouth changed, how his grayish teeth were bared. “I can see it right there—all the things you’re going to kill and step on and walk over.” (281)
Similarly, Oates chisels Lowry, Clara’s earnest, non-committal rambler, into utter authenticity: “‘You’re a sweet little girl but look, look, I never fooled you, did I? I never lied to you. I told you all along how it was. Okay? Are you okay?’” (212).
There is a lot of lore surrounding Oates' ability to "inhabit" her characters in a way one might call telepathic. A book like The Garden of Earthly Delights seems the result of such invocation.