Joyce Carol Oates, A Fair Maiden

Posted by Sarah Anderson on May 10, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with ,

Oates, Joyce Carol. A Fair Maiden: A Tale of Dark Suspense. London: Quercus, 2010. 231p. ISBN: 9781849162609

Reviewed by Sarah Anderson, University of Stirling

‘A Gothic Introduction To Feminist Fiction: Joyce Carol Oates A Fair Maiden’ (Spoiler alert)

‘Rich older man seeks teenage nanny with daddy issues for stalking, assisted suicide and disturbing Red Riding Hood romance, possibly more’.  Or that’s how Joyce Carol Oates’s A Fair Maiden would read if it was in a lonely hearts column. Luckily for us and for Gothic literature in general, Oates has chosen the more conventional novella form.

When I saw the front cover of A Fair Maiden I thought it looked a bit like chicklit you would find in the book section of W H Smiths, and I must admit the feminist academic in me sneered just a teeny tiny bit, but as it turns out I was pleasantly surprised. It turns out that this novella is actually an intelligent, and sometimes cutting edge, experimentation with gender, desire and narrative form and ticks a lot of the boxes for a geekie-queer-gender-Angela Carter- enthusiast.

‘Innocently it began’(3). It is through such dreamlike prose that Oates depicts a 16-year-old nanny, Katya Spivak’s, meeting Marcus Kidder, a 68-year-old children’s author and artist. Their first encounter occurs when Katya is looking at a window display of women’s lingerie. ‘And what would you choose, if you had your wish?’ asks Marcus Kidder, sounding a bit like a disembodied fairy godmother.  It is Katya herself who notes that this is ‘like something in a fairy tale’ (3). Such a scene characterises this novella; the exchange appears innocent enough, disguising darker, more dangerous undertones, which remain unobserved until you do a double take and realise that the object of desire in question is sexy underwear. Not so innocent now, huh?

Katya is the ideal candidate for female gothic. As a nanny she symbolises the domestic realm (as well as absent mothers); she is practically an orphan, with a verging on sexual longing for her missing father and a neglectful mother; she is on the cusp of adulthood; she is a curious combination of promiscuity and innocence; and she’s just a little bit annoying. In Mr Kidder we have both the gothic villain and the chivalrous lover (oh, hello there Mr Rochester, nice of you to join us).This, combined with the fact that he is a little bit camp (he is a children’s author who lives in a house full of ornamental glass flowers), provides a highly entertaining Gothic dynamic for any feminist/gender/queer theory enthusiast.

It is perhaps a little disappointing that Katya isn’t a strong feminist character; nonetheless she does lend herself to some interesting feminist analysis. In particular she occupies the liminal space between adulthood and childhood, which necessarily brings up questions of female identity. For me though, this theme has been done before and is slightly reminiscent of the Gilbert and Gubar and Elaine Showalter generation, invaluable in their time, but more than a little dated now. However, what interests me is the narrative technique Oates uses to explore this theme. Through subtle modulations  of ‘us’ and ‘them’, Katya’s relation to the adults and children around her is impossible to fix; she is like a ghostly figure flitting in and out of view. This in turn serves to queer Katya’s relationship with Mr Kidder which is in a liminal space between sexual and familial love. At one point Katya wonders if Mr Kidder wants to marry or adopt her, questioning the distinction between these different types of desire so that incest looms dangerously close.

There are a few real gems to be picked up by the feminist reader. For instance, Oates depicts the voyeuristic gaze as a sadistic power struggle between Katya and Mr Kidder as well as a way to negotiate desiring and being desired. Though I cannot say that this is a subversion of the gaze – such attempts often appear idealistic- it is a very elegant and realistic critique of it. In a particularly controversial move, Oates questions the relationship between rape and sex.  Mr Kidder’s apparent drugging and raping of Katya appears to be a more intimate, sensual and pleasurable experience in contrast to Katya’s consensual sex with her cousin, which is violent and dehumanising.

It is when this book is read as a fairy tale as one of the best re-writings of Little Red Riding Hood I have ever come across that it yields dark and complex. In addition to LRRH, the narrative picks up lovely fragments from Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty, which are scattered throughout the narrative like a trail of breadcrumbs. In her rewriting of LRRH, Oates deftly plays with roles, switching them about, mixing and matching and generally turning things on their head. As a result, both grandmother and the wolf converge in an elderly gentleman and the red cape is replaced by sexy red underwear. Our heroic woodcutter who comes to save the day is a not-so-pleasant junkie cousin who may or may not have raped Katya the previous summer, so that the distinction between hero and villain is made ambiguous. As in most early versions of LRRH, the girl ends up in bed with the wolf, and instead of being eaten she assists in his suicide and shares a bed with his corpse in a kind of necrophillic consummation. So, again, the identity of the victim is open to interpretation. The final image of the novella is of Katya holding the dead man’s fingers ‘now stiffened with cold’ (231). This suggests that Mr Kidder occupies the traditional position of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, which are the ideal sexual objects: the dead woman, ultimately passive and objectified in the extreme. Now there’s a feminist re-working if ever I saw one.

Lacking in much action-driven plot, the novella works more like a string of images, shrouded in just the right level of Radcliffeian mystery (with less fainting). Mr Kidder’s disembodied voice provides the occasional haunting commentary that sends shivers down your spine, although whether of pleasure or fear I don’t really know. There are also tingling moments of magic realism and the uncanny, which through the use of mirrors things move without seeming to move and the proportions of reality seem oddly skewed. With such fairytale references there is always the danger of cliché, but there is something about Oates’ simplistic dreamlike narrative which produces a sort of parodic distance, as if everything is taken with a slightly cynical pinch of salt. Throughout, Oates splices together oppositional dichotomies to create a world that is disturbingly uncanny, a world that is both chaste and sadistic, both sinister and ordinary, both repulsive and seductive, and that is what makes this book so delightful.

Overall, I thought this was a very, very interesting read, recalling on a more subtle level the sadistic world of Angela Carter’s work. I would certainly recommend this to anyone interested in the contemporary gothic and gender. But- and this is possibly one flaw of the novella- it all depends on how it’s read. If you read it as a story of a young girl’s reaching sexual maturity, then sorry, but I’m pretty sure I’ve read this one before, the 70’s are about 30 years down the road and one feminist movement to the left. But if I read this as a rescripting of the fairytale, participating in the feminist fairy tale genre, then yes please I would very much like a sleep over at grandma’s house. I’ll bring the embalming lotion.

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