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No Happily Ever After for Them

October 12, 2008

By Joyce Carol Oates

 I’ve never been one to dislike books with unhappy endings. In fact, I think I even prefer them most of the time. Austen is enchanting, but her wildly manuevered endings aren’t very realistic; life and matchmaking are rarely so tidy. Hardy, seems to get this, even in the midst of his thick syrup of symbolism; he redeems himself by letting nothing work out in the end. I like the messiness of an unresolved story. Because characters and the verbal boundaries of their lives are far more believable if they’re not so shiny and happy.

It seems that Oates wrote this novel following these guidelines of an unresolved tale. She is determined to write a thoroughly unhappy novel. However, this tragic family saga from 1960s Detroit strikes me as far from redeeming. There is something about it that hangs, that does not fulfill.

I suppose you could say the story is gritty and gripping, but it’s set among the white lower class of Detroit and so anything placed in that landscape is automatically going to be gritty and gripping, no matter what you write. It’s certainly an American tragedy, and I always love a story that spans over several generations. We begin with Loretta, a young, bland girl in 1937, whose life suddenly becomes far less bland in a matter of hours. She sleeps with her boyfriend for the first time at her house (her alcoholic father is gone and her creepy, gun-wielding brother is out lurking somewhere). When she wakes up, she finds blood pooling from his head onto her sheets. Her brother, Brock, shot the kid and now Loretta is left with both the gun and the boy’s body.

This bizarre circumstance is only the beginning of Loretta’s lifetime of bad luck. She is raped by the policeman who comes to investigate the boy’s murder and marries him shortly afterward, bearing him three children, Jules, Maureen and Betty. Jules and Maureen gradually become the focus of the story as Loretta fades into the gray hopelessness of middle age and a bad marriage.

Toward the beginning, Jules seems to be the most interesting and engaging character in the novel. He is thoughtful, quick and sly; he seems to understand things more swiftly than the people who surround him. Yet he is unconvincing, especially as an adolescent. Oates is unable to inhabit a teen boy’s mind persuasively and he ends up sounding, instead, like a weird girl half of the time. (He falls in love with a nun not because she is attractive but because she plays the piano delicately.) He gradually degenerates into a drug-addicted drifter whose lifetime obsession is with Nadine, a girl that he virtually kidnapped and ran away with for a few weeks.

Maureen, his younger sister, is alarming and unapproachable. Bored with the limitations of her young life, she starts sleeping with random men who pick her up on the streets. This diverts her for a while, until she comes home one night and is beaten almost to the point of death by her stepfather.

And I’m not even telling you half of what happens to them. But you needn’t remain too interested; it’s nothing particularly satisfying. The story tries to resolve in what strikes me as a long, slow drip–settling like sludge in the bottom of a pond. The ending is nothing more than a dull thud.

This tedious book may have been more victorious if the characters had been more valuable. It’s the people in Them that principally irk me. I don’t demand that all characters have admirable, lovable qualities; most human beings aren’t overflowing with admirable, lovable qualities and so it is unrealistic to expect characters in a novel to possess them. But these people have nothing even slightly interesting about them. Jules, who seems to have some promise as a child, descends into a pointless existence as a womanizing addict who eventually becomes a murderer. Maureen is so mindless and devoid of anything even resembling a personality that you have to force yourself to be excited for her when she finally marries (not surprisingly, to a man who is already married). They are painfully two-dimensional, so remarkably far from compelling that once you’re halfway through, about 250 pages in, you have to stop and ask yourself, Why am I still reading this? I don’t care about any of these people. I don’t even particularly care what happens to them anymore. If I start asking these questions or drawing these conclusions, that’s a clear sign to me that the book is probably not worth it.

I was surprised when I read that some hail it as “one of the most masterly portraits of postwar America ever written by a novelist,” and that it received the National Book Award when it was published in 1969 (from the publisher’s comments). But I tend to dismiss that as a publisher’s propaganda, and not genuine criticism. Surely I’m not the only one who has issues with Them.

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