Sunday 5 March 2017

Expensive People

'Expensive People' by Joyce Carol Oates has been my breakfast book for a month or two, slow going for such a tiny book. I don't have many books so yellowed, desiccated and disintegrating with age, and only costing 35p (when this edition was published in 1972). It reminded me somewhat of Lolita, a narrator telling their story, one side of the events, their own particular interpretation of the events, and even more unreliable because this narrator is a child, trying to make sense of life and utterly failing. It is also the tale of the parent/child relationship from the point of view of the child, the story of what happens when a child cannot rely on their parents.

Richard likes to spy on his parents; he sits on the landing and listens to their rows, their conversations, their telephone calls, their comings and goings, this is the crux of the story:

"I'll tell you about it: years of anguished, guilty spying. I had to spy - how else could I have known what life was, or who they were, my parents, what they were? So I spied and I learned and I tabulated, calculated, speculated. But at these special times when we were together I thought that i had somehow, magically, captured a man and a woman from another land, foreign and exotic and not quite speaking my language, who were tamed by my power and love and who walked obediently after me, robust and comely and healthy as horses. Such fine horses! These were my true parents. The others - the dissatisfied Natashya Romanov, minor writer, and blubbering breast-beating executive Elwood Everett - were nothing but cruel step-parents." (p.20-1)

He informs us on the first page that he is a murderer. For a while I expected it to develop into more of a mystery, but it is the story of his childhood, the petty traumas and the more significant ones, that drive him to this one dreadful act. It is his explanation, his justification for it, and he is asking the reader (whom he addresses directly) to act as his judge and jury. 

While it is both his parents that he watches, it is Nada, his mother who draws the utmost devotion, she is this strange misunderstood person, unreliable, who has left them before, and will do so again:

"And she stood, quiet sand serious, looking at me the way she looked at Father or women with their hair in rollers out on the street or the messes neighbourly dogs made on our lawn. Her face was magnificent and pale, her eyes dark,a little demented, as if tiny curving pieces of glass had been fitted over them for some weird theatrical purpose. Oh, I don't know! I don't know what she looked like! I watched and watched her for years. I stared at her and loved her. I have photographs of her in my desk drawer that I finger and caress and still I don't know what she looked like; she passed over from being another person into being part of myself. It was as if Nada, my mother, had become a kind of embryonic creature stuck in my body, not in a womb maybe but part of my brain. How can you describe a creature that is lodged in your brain? It's all impossible, a mess ..." (p.84)

He loves her but often feels of secondary importance to her, being taken along on her adventures almost like a dog, but he doesn't mind, because his adoration has doglike qualities. I so often felt sorry for him, though he never seems to pity himself or wish for a more normal, predictable life. Here his thoughts when Nada takes him to the library:

"A lovely library - how I love libraries, any and all libraries, those sanctuaries for the maimed and undanceable, the lowly, pimply, neurotic, overweight, underweight, myopic, asthmatic ... Few are the flirtations in a library, I insist, though Nada never had to search far for an adventure. Few are the assaults, physical or verbal. Libraries exist for people like me." (p.85)

I think his narration is unreliable for different reasons, mostly because he often does not understand what is happening, and you get such a strong sense of his insecurity, his confusion. Here, part of the story of the dog Sparky, one dog, but also several dogs who they all pretend are the same dog:

"What kind of a day? Misty, mild; spring. Nada dressed in beautiful new suit, new gloves and purse in hand, ready to press the button and raise the garage door and drive off, destination unknown. Yes, I can see her there. In a minute she will leave.
Happy days are all one big blur of confusion, but so are unhappy days; in my sordid life, all days were blurs of confusion. But this was a happy day and blurred as usual with my shouts of joy and Sparky's little whimpers and his fuzzy, downy stomach (much more downy than the soft blonde down of Nada's arms) and his caramel-candy-coloured coat. He was delicious enough to eat! I hugged Sparky in my clumsy arms and helped his wave goodbye to Nada, who drove out and away, and I didn't turn aside from his wet leaping tongue.
And then ... not a minute later there was an aqua laundry truck." (p.127-8)

Slowly and surely, the years of his childhood pass. During another of her repeated absences he reads the forbidden stories that she has published. His feelings for her are eroded; not his love for her, but his sense that he knows and understand her, and the scene begins to be set of the denouement:

"You who've never read the secret words of the familiar, the domesticated people you love, and who've never snuggled into their brains and looked out through their eyes, how can you understand what I felt? It's as if I had opened a door ands Nada not as she wanted to seem to us, but Nada as she really was, a stranger, a person Father and I did not know and had no connection with. We are accustomed to people existing in orbit around us, and we dread thinking of their deaths because of the slight tug we will feel when their presence is gone - we'll be drawn closer to the rigidity of darkness, space, death. We are accustomed to these smaller planets always showing the same sides to us, familiar, predictable, secure, sound, sane, accommodating, but when I looked through Nada's eyes I knew that I had been tricked, that she showed only her narrowest, most ignorant side to me, and that she had cheated me all of my life." (p.160)

His experience after the event, of nobody believing his confession, seems to sum up the surreal nature of what he does, almost like an out-of-body experience, and his sense, throughout the story, of never being sure of what is real and what is not, of the truth of anyone's emotions or actions:

"I tiptoed to the staircase and went upstairs. Nothing creaked. At the top I waited. I was good at waiting. A kind of sunny haze enveloped me, and I stood there waiting and not-waiting, thinking that Nada and I were alone in the house, all alone, and she did not know it. I was in a kind of agreeable trance. Later, when I was to recount all this as part of my confession, they checked with my maths teacher, Mr Hale, and to my amazement he told them that I hadn't been absent that day! according to his records, this 'Richard Everett' had had perfect attendance up until the time he stopped coming altogether. But I insist, my readers, that I was absent, yes, I was absent from class that morning, and all but absent from even this perch at the top of the stairs my mind was drifting and wandering." (p.196)

It turns out the disintegration of his trust was totally justified, and things were not as they had appeared. A thoroughly disconcerting book, but Joyce Carol Oates is always a writer to recommend.

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