Saturday, April 14, 2012

Not a fair maiden at all

"You do mean it, Katya? You're not just saying this humor me?"

Humor? Katya wasn't sure what this meant. Unless Mr. Kidder was asking if she was lying to placate him. As girls and women do, to placate men.

Really? Am I missing something? I don't question that girls and women do this, and they learn to do this at a very early age, but for a 16-year-old to use the word "placate" in her head while not understanding the expression "to humor someone"?!

A Fair Maiden is the first book I've ever picked up written by Joyce Carol Oates, and I really didn't like it much at all. Thank gawd it was short.

I'll be seeing Joyce Carol Oates next week at the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival — she's the recipient of this year's Grand Prix. I thought it only appropriate that I should read something of hers before then.

Oates succeeds in making A Fair Maiden an uncomfortable read — what does a wealthy old man want with a teenage nanny? — but the characterization is poor, the langauge is off (the narration switches from Katya's perspective to if not exactly Mr. Kidder's, then Katya's approximation of what Mr. Kidder's perspective might be; all the adverbs are in awkward places; and "mansion-sized houses" just sounds dumb), and the fairy tale element thrown in toward the end is laughable (or make the whole thing fairytalesque and throw out the first 100 pages).

Every other page is he's funny, no he's creepy, is he sincere in his quaint way, or is he mocking me, he wants me, pervert, no he really loves me, I want everyone to look at me, everyone wants me, no don't look at me I'm ugly, and this gets very tiresome. Yes, 16-year-old girls are confused, and often naive, but some of the contradictions Oates builds into Katya's character make her stupid, and I don't buy it.

There's simply no subtlety in it.

There are a few points in the Paris Review interview (1976) that lead me to suspect that in writing A Fair Maiden, published in 2010, Oates actually identifies with the old man.

Excerpt.

Some reviews
(Despite their reservations, they're still much warmer than my feelings toward this novella.)
The Guardian
The Independent states that Katya is "only vaguely aware of his more sinister intentions" but this is false — she perceives (rightly or not) perverted sexual intentions by page 8!
Popmatters ranks this "as one of Oates' stronger works," but then quantifies it as a 7 out of 10 (the rest of her work rates lower?).
Washington Post

Is Oates possibly still riding on the success of 1969's Them? Is there a particular novel of hers you would recommend? (I'm not much for short stories, of which I know she's written quite a few, but I'm game to try one of her crime novels before next week's event.)
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