O'Connor's reply to my recent query about what she was reading:
While traveling to promote my new novel, The Master’s Muse, I read two terrific novels.Visit Varley O'Connor's website.
Believe me, I was so busy and nervous about the fate of my own book, if these two hadn’t grabbed me and delivered straight through to the end, I would certainly have put them down. Instead, they reminded me of why I read and write; they kept me grounded, entertained, and inspired.
First I read Mudwoman: A Novel, the latest from Joyce Carol Oates. It’s her best since her masterpiece, Blonde, and I highly recommend it. The novel’s riveting portrait of a woman confronting the price she has paid in rising to become the first female president of an American Ivy-league university is as complex and compelling as Dostoevsky and Poe.
We have far too few contemporary novels by and about women that bore deeply into the female psyche and unearth the connections between the dark side of our culture and individual lives.
The protagonist embodies the underbelly of the American dream in her beginnings as the victim of a desperate mother who literally tosses her three-year-old girl into a mudflat and leaves her to die. The child is rescued and adopted by a Quaker family, growing up loved and overachieving and haunted by the trauma her adoptive parents choose to downplay and nearly contend never happened.
But as sublimations will, the past burrows up and threatens our heroine when, at the pinnacle of her successful climb to the top, stress and the lies she is called upon to endorse at the beginning of the Iraq war drive her to the edge.
Subtly and truthfully, in the part dealing with the war, Oates connects the plight of American women with those in other cultures. I especially admired those moments, since all too often novels dismiss or avoid the very real difficulties girls and women still face in America today.
Structurally, the novel alternates between the unraveling of the university president and the story of her past. Some reviewers have criticized points in the narrative where reality and fantasy/fear/uncertain memory overlap, without a clear delineation. But the mimetic representation of the nightmare aspect of this woman’s journey is worth the temporary displacement.
It is all landed and clarified by the end, as is fitting for a main character of such high intelligence and courage. Miraculously, the mud woman/girl not only survives, but she emerges with her empathy for others intact, even for her murderous mother—and the entire reading experience is one of incredible reach and satisfaction.
Hollywood Boulevard, by Janyce Stefan-Cole, is a very different kind of novel. The one similarity is that, again, it is a story of American life through the eyes of a woman, and the story includes the breadth and specificity of her interior self: Stefan-Cole’s fluid interplay between the inner life and outer experience of her narrator is what makes the deceptively simple story highly readable and profound.
Ardennes Thrush is a film actor on the verge of stardom when she drops out. We first encounter her aimlessly lurking about the grounds of a resident Hollywood hotel where she is living while her director husband shoots his latest film. The dropout actor has begun spying on other lives.
The portrait of modern-day Hollywood dappled by the ghosts of Hollywood past is spot on. But it is the voice and mind of Ardennes that keeps you reading. She isn’t a Hollywood starlet type, but a contemplative with a wry incisive sense of humor and a healthy appetite for and appreciation of men. This is one of the reasons I’d imagine men would like the book as well as women would.
Ardennes is drifting, but this is no Play It As It Lays. Action kicks in when Ardennes suspects she’s being stalked: and she is. Later she’s kidnapped, and in real danger.
Her experience forces the secretive—even to her own self—Ardennes to reveal to herself and the reader who she is and why. The difficulty of how to move on from a stuck place in life is one most of us can relate to in a world in which almost everything seems sold out and already over.
People have dubbed the book noir, and I suppose it is in a way. There’s intrigue and a smart lusty cop, a few outrageous fun supporting characters straight out of Chandler and, as I’ve indicated, a no-nonsense narrator with edge.
But there is heart and multi-faceted characterization as well. Mostly, I admired the book’s freshness. And the author’s highly visual writing really does make you feel you are there.
You don’t so much feel you are watching a film; you feel you are in one.