Saturday, May 15, 2010

You Must Remember This, by Joyce Carol Oates

One of the good things about reading Joyce Carol Oates' novels, for me, is that she is so prolific and I have read so few of her books. I was taken by the first I read, I don't even remember which it was, and have scooped up those that have crossed my path since. Oddly I have not ordered them specifically, just found them on shelves in used book stores and in book boxes and in bookcrossing zones.

I had not heard of this particular book and it sat on my shelf for quite some time. Finally its time came.

Some of the critics' comments, on the cover and inside, suggest that this is one of her best, possibly her best. It may be. Written in the 1980s, though, probably not. There have been so many since.

The main character is Enid Marie. She is young, growing up in the 1950s in a small town in upstate New York. The 1950s she lives through certainly remind me of those I lived through as well, although I am eight years younger than she. Small towns in this country perhaps resembled each other, wherever they were, in that time. In the fifties television was just catching on and larger incidents and political decisions were reaching the general public as never before. It was the time after the Atomic bomb and there was no escaping the speculation and the fear. I remember my own nightmares of that time. Much of this time in this novel is familiar, and not in a warm and fuzzy way.

Thus we have Enid, a bright and curious and strong child, growing up Catholic in a world when certain things were not spoken about, a cloud covered certain topics. She is a quiet child, a good child, except for a part of her known as "Angel Face", a part of her willing to take risks, a part that laughs at the world. Is it this part that finds a certain attraction to her young uncle?

Bit by bit, through her eyes and through his, we see Enid and her uncle Felix find each other, resist the pull and finally we see Felix break through when drunk and - what word do we use? molest? rape? These are true, this is what happened, yet as in Lolita it isn't necessarily simple. Yes, I blame him for not holding back, but I also see her forwardness and understand it as well.

Fifteen-year-old Enid has an affair with her uncle, twice her age. She hides it well, she feels the emotional pull as strongly as perhaps only a teen can. The two are discreet, finding places to be together where nobody cares. And so it continues. The scenes are so real as to be breathtaking. I am there when I read them, I am Enid. I know her although she is not me, not really.

We meet not only Enid but her uncle, and we follow him around on his business dealings. We meet her father Lyle, owner of a used furniture store, scraping by, and we meet, less closely, her mother, her sisters, and a bit more closely we see her brother Warren. Each is affected by the time, the events, the possibilities and the problems. Each springs to life here, genuine, accurate.

It may be that because I lived through the fifties I felt this novel deeply. I think, too, though, that I felt it because of my own character and experiences, some of which might well have been shared by others not my age. Enid's experiences reminded me of some of my own, different yet of the same intensity and with the same shame. A book that brings part of me back to myself is a book I consider great.