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Joyce Carol Oates: Black Water

Joyce Carol Oates is one of those authors who seem to have a book out every year and, with forty years’ worth of output spanning novels, short stories, plays, essays, poetry, and more, it feels strange never to have read anything by her. And then there’s the writing under pseudonyms, too – she’s practically monopolising literature; and she’s picked up a number of awards along the way.

So why haven’t I read her? Well, it may be something to do with the titles of those novels: Man Crazy, Middle Age: A Romance, and Missing Mom, for example. But it turns out, as her Bram Stoker award suggests, that Oates is perhaps more protean than I first thought.

So, then, to Black Water (1992), which is out of print in the UK, but still cheaply available, although I picked it up from my local library. The poor thing hadn’t been checked out for quite some time. Was it that bad? Actually, no, as it happens.

Kelly Kelleher, a twenty-six year old woman, is out for a drive with a tipsy political figure referred to only as the Senator. They’ve just left a Fourth of July party and are headed somewhere a little more secluded. But, as fate has it, they speed off down a closed road and, before the Senator can react, they have skidded off the road and find themselves in black rushing water, the car listing on the passenger side. It’s okay for the Senator – he escapes. But for poor Kelly, it’s time for her young life to flash before her eyes. And so it does, the narrative flowing between a series of flashbacks and those final panicked moments of knowing you are about to die:

She was drowning, but she was not going to drown. She was strong, she meant to put up a damned good fight.

If the premise sounds familiar, then it’s because Oates has lifted it almost wholly from the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969, where Ted Kennedy escaped his car when he drove off a bridge, leaving twenty-eight year old, Mary Jo Kopechne, to drown. Personally, I was unaware of the incident until doing a bit of extracurricular research on Black Water, and being ignorant of the historical basis, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t an issue. For one, Oates has changed the name, so it’s a story. Right? Secondly, it’s setting is after the Gulf War. And finally, what matter are facts when what’s on offer here is Oates’ imagination, as she invents her own version and supposes what it must be like to be that young woman in the final moments of her life as:

…the water splashed and churned about her mouth, foul-tasting water not water, like no water she knew.

Black Water‘s style varies throughout, the flashbacks being detailed assessments of the burgeoning relationship between Kelly and the Senator; the manic passages in the sinking car, for want of a better phrase, being prose poetry, producing a sense of the ramblings, assurances, and fears within Kelly’s mind.

Since the drowing can only occupy so many pages, the rest are taken up by Kelly’s life. We learn about her parents, her schooling, her job – all this in order to give us someone to care about. Not so that we care about her, but so that we have a figure to jeer in the Senator. The sheer arrogance of the man as he abuses Kelly’s confidence in him (her thesis was on him; he’s single, she’s obviously interested in him, so why not?), and, in the aftermath of the incident, is concerned only with this career highlights the arrogance of power and the versions of truth that we are fed:

…so there was an instant’s shocked silence and then Ray said, “Dead–!” more an inhalation of breath than an expletive and then he said, quickly, “Don’t tell me over the phone! Just tell me where you are and I’ll come get you,” and the Senator was sobbing now, furious and incredulous and aggrieved, “The girl was drunk, and she got emotional, she grabbed at the wheel and the car swerved off the road…”

Black Water, as a novella, is certainly an interesting piece although I don’t think I overly enjoyed it. Sure, its prose was frenzied and fun – even if I was reading about a woman drowning – and its repetitive nature understandable, give that it reflected the wandering thoughts of Kelly as it came to new subjects, washed off, returned. But there was just something that didn’t catch my interest, probably the American politics aspect. It was worth going off-road for, but didn’t make the splash I wanted.

November 8, 2007

13 responses to Joyce Carol Oates: Black Water

  1. John Self said:

    A book out every year? You underestimate Ms Oates! I counted once in her Also By This Author page, about 70 novels, collections of stories, and other full length books in the last 40 or so years. Which in itself is the reason I haven’t read her. How good can she be at that rate? And more importantly, if I like her then I’m going to have a hell of a task on my hands…

  2. Kirsty said:

    Oh Stewart, the punnery of the last sentence! Oh ho!

    I’ve only read one JCO novel (Rape: A Love Story), which was grim but really rather good. I have two more books by her sitting somewhere in the TBR pile – another novel which I’ve temporarily forgotten the name of, and a recent book of short stories called The Female of the Species.

    Intrigued by this, but I’m not sure whether I could read it knowing she drowns. This is because I am A Soppy Girl and A Big Wuss.

  3. Stewart said:

    My library also has Rape: A Love Story, which seems just as short. I’ll probably check it out on my next visit.

  4. Beth said:

    I remember when Chappaquiddick happened and would love to read her treatment of this. She’s such a powerful, hard hitting writer. Because it is Bitter and Because it is My Heart is a favorite of mine and her story The Dead is incredibly strong as well. As always, Stewart leads you right to the store for a must read!

  5. Tony S. said:

    I’ve read several Joyce Carol Oates novels over the years and many of her stories. I usually enjoy her stories. The following are three of her novels which I enjoyed very much : “I’ll Take You There”, “Marya – A Life”, and “You Must Remember This”. Ocasionally Joyce Carol Oates gets so overwrought on some morality high horse that she keeps kicking, and then her writing becomes so obsessed, it becomes unbearable. One novel which I hated of hers was “We were the Mulvaneys”. I don’t remember all the details, but the teenage girl in the novel is besmirched, and it destroys the family. The writing becomes so obsessive and overwrought, I don’t see how anyone could get any enjoyment out of reading this novel. If I remember correctly, “Blackwater” suffered from this obsessiveness also. I don’t think Joyce Carol Oates would be too happy about a Senator getting involved with a young woman.

  6. Stewart said:

    If I remember correctly, “Blackwater” suffered from this obsessiveness also.

    In that case, Tony, I think I may like the overwrought stuff. Even though, after Black Water, I’m in no hurry to read more of Oates.

  7. James Valentine said:

    Joyce Carol Oates has never won a Pulitzer Prize. The 2000 winner for fiction was Jhumpa Lahiri for INTERPRETER OF MALADIES. BLONDE was a finalist (not winner) for the fiction award in 2001; and BLACK WATER was a finalist nominee (not winner) in 1993.

    The only major “prestigious” award won by Joyce Carol Oates is the 1970 National Book Foundation Award for THEM.

  8. Stewart said:

    Thanks, James. I’ve amended the post.

  9. juwita elfriani said:

    I want to know the meaning of “black water” in JCO’s Black Water as refers to the real life… please help me…

  10. Stewart said:

    I would suppose that, other than the literal black water the car ends up in, the murkiness applies to the facts of the Chappaquiddick incident.

  11. juwita elfriani said:

    thanks for your comment…
    I’m going to take Joice Carol Oates’ Black Water to be my thesis.. what’s the best issue that I should take from it???

  12. Stewart said:

    What’s the best issue? I have no idea. It was ages ago that I read it and, well, it’s your thesis, not mine.

  13. Dorine said:

    Hi you all,
    Open yourselves; Joyce Carol Oates (not young, not from a sophisticated upbringing), gives us the chance to open up ourselves, what she writes about, the characters, she’s honest, open, and a MAESTRA. I’ve read many of her books, short stories. Overwhelming. Where did she get all the background emotional information and where did she find the words?
    I don’t say she’s the best. But neither do I think that “cheap” critisism is an asset.
    She’s just talented, genius, courageous, goes her own way. If you don’t like her, don’t read her.
    She’s not into mental masturbation as so many young (and not young) writers are.
    Love her, read her, learn from her books to better understand society. Otherwise don’t read her.
    Really, I don’t understand this criticism. If I don’t like certain people I avoid them,if I don’t like certain life-styles I don’t imitate them. Do you want to go to Timbuctù, go there, but don’t expect me to have the same wish, I may be interested only in crossing the Alps on my bike, without making an issue of it.
    Toodeloo

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13 responses to Joyce Carol Oates: Black Water

  1. John Self said:

    A book out every year? You underestimate Ms Oates! I counted once in her Also By This Author page, about 70 novels, collections of stories, and other full length books in the last 40 or so years. Which in itself is the reason I haven’t read her. How good can she be at that rate? And more importantly, if I like her then I’m going to have a hell of a task on my hands…

  2. Kirsty said:

    Oh Stewart, the punnery of the last sentence! Oh ho!

    I’ve only read one JCO novel (Rape: A Love Story), which was grim but really rather good. I have two more books by her sitting somewhere in the TBR pile – another novel which I’ve temporarily forgotten the name of, and a recent book of short stories called The Female of the Species.

    Intrigued by this, but I’m not sure whether I could read it knowing she drowns. This is because I am A Soppy Girl and A Big Wuss.

  3. Stewart said:

    My library also has Rape: A Love Story, which seems just as short. I’ll probably check it out on my next visit.

  4. Beth said:

    I remember when Chappaquiddick happened and would love to read her treatment of this. She’s such a powerful, hard hitting writer. Because it is Bitter and Because it is My Heart is a favorite of mine and her story The Dead is incredibly strong as well. As always, Stewart leads you right to the store for a must read!

  5. Tony S. said:

    I’ve read several Joyce Carol Oates novels over the years and many of her stories. I usually enjoy her stories. The following are three of her novels which I enjoyed very much : “I’ll Take You There”, “Marya – A Life”, and “You Must Remember This”. Ocasionally Joyce Carol Oates gets so overwrought on some morality high horse that she keeps kicking, and then her writing becomes so obsessed, it becomes unbearable. One novel which I hated of hers was “We were the Mulvaneys”. I don’t remember all the details, but the teenage girl in the novel is besmirched, and it destroys the family. The writing becomes so obsessive and overwrought, I don’t see how anyone could get any enjoyment out of reading this novel. If I remember correctly, “Blackwater” suffered from this obsessiveness also. I don’t think Joyce Carol Oates would be too happy about a Senator getting involved with a young woman.

  6. Stewart said:

    If I remember correctly, “Blackwater” suffered from this obsessiveness also.

    In that case, Tony, I think I may like the overwrought stuff. Even though, after Black Water, I’m in no hurry to read more of Oates.

  7. James Valentine said:

    Joyce Carol Oates has never won a Pulitzer Prize. The 2000 winner for fiction was Jhumpa Lahiri for INTERPRETER OF MALADIES. BLONDE was a finalist (not winner) for the fiction award in 2001; and BLACK WATER was a finalist nominee (not winner) in 1993.

    The only major “prestigious” award won by Joyce Carol Oates is the 1970 National Book Foundation Award for THEM.

  8. Stewart said:

    Thanks, James. I’ve amended the post.

  9. juwita elfriani said:

    I want to know the meaning of “black water” in JCO’s Black Water as refers to the real life… please help me…

  10. Stewart said:

    I would suppose that, other than the literal black water the car ends up in, the murkiness applies to the facts of the Chappaquiddick incident.

  11. juwita elfriani said:

    thanks for your comment…
    I’m going to take Joice Carol Oates’ Black Water to be my thesis.. what’s the best issue that I should take from it???

  12. Stewart said:

    What’s the best issue? I have no idea. It was ages ago that I read it and, well, it’s your thesis, not mine.

  13. Dorine said:

    Hi you all,
    Open yourselves; Joyce Carol Oates (not young, not from a sophisticated upbringing), gives us the chance to open up ourselves, what she writes about, the characters, she’s honest, open, and a MAESTRA. I’ve read many of her books, short stories. Overwhelming. Where did she get all the background emotional information and where did she find the words?
    I don’t say she’s the best. But neither do I think that “cheap” critisism is an asset.
    She’s just talented, genius, courageous, goes her own way. If you don’t like her, don’t read her.
    She’s not into mental masturbation as so many young (and not young) writers are.
    Love her, read her, learn from her books to better understand society. Otherwise don’t read her.
    Really, I don’t understand this criticism. If I don’t like certain people I avoid them,if I don’t like certain life-styles I don’t imitate them. Do you want to go to Timbuctù, go there, but don’t expect me to have the same wish, I may be interested only in crossing the Alps on my bike, without making an issue of it.
    Toodeloo

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