Thursday 23 November 2017

Joyce Carol Oates tackles abortion and motherhood

Fiction: A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates, Fourth Estate, hbk, 736 pages, €23.79

Provocative: Joyce Oates often spotlights the darker sides of America
Provocative: Joyce Oates often spotlights the darker sides of America

Joanne Hayden

Joyce Carol Oates is not afraid to be provocative. One of her novellas is entitled Rape: a Love Story. She's active on Twitter and her tweets frequently cause controversy. An exceptionally prolific writer, she often spotlights the darker sides of America, particularly its poverty, violence and subjugation of women. In this respect, her latest novel fits neatly into her oeuvre. But, at over 700 pages, A Book of American Martyrs is also one of Oates' most ambitious undertakings, exploring the polarisation of a country through the issues of abortion, Christian fundamentalism and the death penalty.

At the story's centre is the murder of a doctor, Gus Voorhees. A high-profile advocate of women's rights, Voorhees carries out abortions at the Ohio clinic where he is director. One morning in 1999, he - along with a clinic volunteer - is shot dead by Luther Dunphy, a religious extremist. The killing has appalling consequences for the families of both men but Oates is particularly interested in the daughters - Naomi Voorhees and Dawn Dunphy. Politically, economically and intellectually, Naomi and Dawn occupy different worlds but the murder links them, trails them and, in different ways, comes to define them.

As Naomi struggles to archive her father's life, she circles the Dunphys, drawing ever closer to Dawn, who has become a welterweight boxer called 'The Hammer of Jesus'.

A polyphonic novel, A Book of American Martyrs encompasses multiple points of view including those of Luther, Gus and their wives and daughters. Oates also gives space to more peripheral characters - Gus's lawyer, his mother, Dawn's teacher, a death-row prison officer. Sometimes a point of view shifts from the first to the third person or is intercut with a different voice entirely.

Oates is not unconcerned with plot or cause and effect but, with its vast mosaic of perspectives, the book is like a documentary that tries to examine its subject matter from as many angles as possible. Significantly, Naomi aspires to be a documentary-maker but, until she sees Dawn boxing, has no idea what to focus on other than the life and death of her father.

While Naomi is not a protagonist in the traditional sense, she is fundamental to the narrative and her roles of imperfect researcher and archivist consolidate the novel's form. Doubly broken, she is empathetic, clever and self-reflective, wry about her parents - "adamant, idealistic, [usually] unyielding liberals" - who both failed her.

Following her father's death she is abandoned by her mother, Jenna, a sketchily drawn character whose decision to leave feels slightly inauthentic.

Oates is interested in perceptions of motherhood as well as perceptions of abortion and she includes in the book three women who are unwilling, or unable, to be present for their children. Dawn's mother is addicted to sleeping pills and can barely function. As a child, Gus was abandoned by his own mother who, unlike Jenna, is vibrant and real on the page. While Gus's mother is far more than a mouthpiece, her recollection of a conversation with the adult Gus is one of the novel's most weighted scenes.

"You are wrong to think that because you have been born you are in a position to prevent others from being born," she says to her son.

She tells Gus about her unwanted pregnancy and bungled attempt to terminate it in the hope that he might see a perspective "not naturally" his own. She is, however, totally pro-choice.

In A Book of American Martyrs, absolutes are suspect. Jenna opposes capital punishment but when she first hears the death penalty mentioned in relation to Luther, her reaction is emotional rather than intellectual; she feels excitement as well as dread: "He should die, for what he did..."

There are numerous such examples of internal conflict and contradictions woven throughout. But though Oates is perfectly capable of nuanced writing, in certain cases she can't resist joining the dots for her readers. Characters sometimes make unnecessary observations or have unnecessary epiphanies. Gus's lawyer, for example, tells Naomi: "Your father was afflicted with the sort of blindness that some religious visionaries are afflicted."

This point is made over and over. Even the novel's title links Gus and Luther, both of whom call the other side "the enemy" and put their own visions ahead of their families.

Unsurprisingly, Oates is at her best when depicting the abject lives of the Dunphys and, in the case of Dawn, articulating the thoughts and feelings of an inarticulate character. She is also forensic in her exploration of the damage inflicted on Naomi by the murder - the grief "that is not pure but mixed with fury." And if A Book of American Martyrs is occasionally clumsy, it's also satisfyingly thought provoking, and timely in an Irish as well as an American context. Its range and even its unwieldiness reflect the complexity of the issues it tackles.

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