ANGEL OF LIGHT by Joyce Carol Oates

ANGEL OF LIGHT

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Thanks to a fairly conventional thriller format, Oates' newest attempt to make feverish myth out of supposed American prototypes is far more manageable--if no more successful--than the rambling excesses of Bellefleur: it's a Washington, D.C. retelling of Aeschylus' Oresteia which tries, vaguely, to hook up the themes of personal betrayal and revenge with the politics of treason and terrorism. Maurice Halleck, Director of the (imaginary) Federal Commission for the Ministry of Justice, is dead in an apparent car-crash suicide following a bribery scandal (connected to investigations into the Allende affair). But Maurice's high-strung teenage daughter Kirsten is convinced that her father was murdered--for domestic and perhaps political reasons--by chic mother Isabel and her lover Nicholas Martens, Maurie's old pal and colleague at the Commission. So, fixed on a double revenge-killing, Kirsten/Electra hysterically demands active support from low-key older brother Owen--an undergraduate who (in a totally implausible sequence) rinds his half-hearted commitment to matricide becoming politicized into manic revolutionary bloodlust, via seduction by an elegant, homosexual gum of international terrorism. ("Our acts are to confirm justice. . . . They will not be acts of personal vengeance--we've gone beyond that.") And meanwhile Oates provides flashback background on the Maurie/isabel/Nick triangle: young Nick saving schoolmate Maurie's life on a canoeing trip; the philosophical split between pragmatist Nick (handsome, popular) and idealist Maurie (monkey-faced, a loner); the routine guilts of the adultery and subsequent deceit. But the relationships and motivations remain unlifelike and murky--as does the significance of the political corruption (Nick's) which becomes entangled with personal betrayal. And the limp attempt to weight the Kirsten/Owen conspiracy with revolutionary politics (Oates makes them descendants of John Brown, quasi-terrorist hero) is merely longwinded, with pages of terrorism rhetoric and data. Finally, then, there's only the melodrama of the revenge--Kirsten seduces and nearly kills Nick, Owen kills Isabel ("Bitch. Cunt. Murderer. Mother") and others, kamikaze-style--followed by the clearing of Maurie's name by a transformed, reclusive Nick. True, Oates' prose, though slack and repetitive, is generally readable this time around. And occasional glimmers of issues worth exploring ("What a person is in secret, he becomes--in politics") do surface. But once again it seems as if Oates catches a glimpse of a thematic construct, then throws words at it from all directions--with blurry, inflated, and uninvolving results.
Pub Date: Aug. 17th, 1981
ISBN: 0517421852
Publisher: Dutton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1981




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