Oates’s 35th novel, which follows last year’s flawed but interesting The Gravedigger’s Daughter, is another bloated roman a cléf.
The subject is a notorious recent child murder, and, despite a firm prefatory disclaimer, there’s no doubt that this novel’s young victim was inspired, if that’s the right word, by the frail figure of serial beauty contest winner JonBenét Ramsey. The book is framed as a narrative written by the late Bliss (born Edna Louise) Rampike’s older brother Skyler, in hopes of exorcising conflicted feelings about his celebrity sibling: a precociously gifted figure skater whose bludgeoned body was found in the furnace room of their lavish New Jersey home, when Bliss was six and Skyler nine years old. Skyler’s story is composed ten years after Bliss’s death, a decade in which he had also endured the bitter collapse of his parents’ storybook marriage, another traumatic death and widespread suspicion that he was his sister’s killer. The pages mount up relentlessly. Oates satirizes the inordinate ambitions of Bliss’s nutcase parents (father Bix is a preening skirt chaser and domestic tyrant and “Mummy” Betsey is histrionically determined to transform, first unwilling and inept Skyler, subsequently docile Edna Louise, into the champion skater Betsey never became); and she breaks the back of the narrative with Skyler’s lachrymose “Teen Memory of a Lost Love,” a chronicle of Skyler's botched attempt to be a “normal” high school kid. The novel does generate power from its dogged repetitive emphasis on the wretched spectacle of innocent children malformed and victimized by their foolish parents. And Oates does manage a stunningly ironic cliffhanger ending. But the novel’s excesses consume it. Years ago, Oates admitted to a “laughably Balzacian” ambition to get the whole world into a book. But comparisons to Balzac grow ever fainter with every opus horribilis like Blonde and My Sister, My Love. More likely, this author is in danger of becoming a 21st-century Upton Sinclair.
A bad idea, poorly executed. Where will Oates take us next? One wonders, and fears.