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BELLEFLEUR by Joyce Carol Oates


by Joyce Carol Oates

Pub Date: Aug. 11th, 1980
ISBN: 0452267943
Publisher: Dutton

American family saga, Oates style—which means a dark household full of lust, obsessions, visions, ghosts, murders, disappearances, grotesques, mystical animals, religious conversions. . . and page after page of roiling, lazily ornate Oates prose. The book is made of 80 short, titled, often disconnected chapters—some episodes from the lives of distant Bellefleur ancestors (pioneer Jedediah wandering the hills in feverish search of God, great-great-grandfather Raphael insisting that his posthumous skin be made into a drum), but mostly tales of the vaguely 20th-century Bellefleurs on their lakeside estate in the Adirondacks-like mountains. Throughout, the wandering focus settles most often on Leah B., who has strange "powers" that seem forever frustrated: when she married handsome cousin Gideon, he squashed her pet spider named "Love"; Gideon has proven to be an insatiable philanderer (impregnating an underage local wench); so now Leah, mother of twins, burns with desire for another child—and indeed she becomes colossally pregnant (eating raw beefsteak) and gives birth to a girl baby who unfortunately has the lower half of a boy baby growing out of her abdomen. (Grandmother Della chops away the excess: "now it's a she and not a he. I've had enough of he. . .") Baby Germaine then becomes Leah's mystical guide, inspiring her to rebuild the crumbled Bellefleur empire and also secure a pardon for great-uncle Jean-Pierre II, who's been locked up for decades as a supposed mass murderer (eventually released, the old man will later massacre some Bellefleur enemies). And, while Leah pursues her obsession, a dozen other family members more or less succumb to the Bellefleur curse: a legendary vulture swoops down and kills Gideon's illegitimate baby; Gideon's poet brother Vernon ("my essence is Vernon and not Bellefleur, I belong to God, I am God") is drowned by anti-Bellefleur townies; brother Ewan gets religion; niece Yolande is raped, then avenged; nephew Raphael disappears (he's become obsessed with voices calling to him from a pond). There are recurring motifs (revenge, sin, God, modes of transport), a stream of surreal creatures (a knowing dwarf, powerful cats and dogs, rats all through the mansion, a black bear who married a 19th-century Bellefleur), and an apocalyptic finale—in which Gideon, still philandering but sick of the struggle with Leah over Germaine, flies his plane into Bellefleur Manor, kamikaze-style. But for all the connections and weavings and trappings of myth/epic, this massive novel never seems more than a grab-bag of familiar Oates preoccupations and turns of mind—the best of which turn up in a few of the entirely self-contained early-Bellefleur tales (like "The Clavichord"). And even the intermittent impacts here are diluted by Oates' overheated, increasingly undisciplined, often downright slovenly prose: parentheses within parentheses, indiscriminate italics and exclamation points, obvious ideas belabored and decorated, baroque devices unsupported by intellectual vigor or verbal panache. As always, some moody and grimly ghoulish leaps of imagination—but, overall, a great pudding of a book lacking in shape, flavor, and substance.