A bad idea, poorly executed. Where will Oates take us next? One wonders, and fears.

MY SISTER, MY LOVE

THE INTIMATE STORY OF SKYLER RAMPIKE

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.

Pub Date: June 24, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-06-154748-5

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2008

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This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

THINGS FALL APART

Written with quiet dignity that builds to a climax of tragic force, this book about the dissolution of an African tribe, its traditions, and values, represents a welcome departure from the familiar "Me, white brother" genre.

Written by a Nigerian African trained in missionary schools, this novel tells quietly the story of a brave man, Okonkwo, whose life has absolute validity in terms of his culture, and who exercises his prerogative as a warrior, father, and husband with unflinching single mindedness. But into the complex Nigerian village filters the teachings of strangers, teachings so alien to the tribe, that resistance is impossible. One must distinguish a force to be able to oppose it, and to most, the talk of Christian salvation is no more than the babbling of incoherent children. Still, with his guns and persistence, the white man, amoeba-like, gradually absorbs the native culture and in despair, Okonkwo, unable to withstand the corrosion of what he, alone, understands to be the life force of his people, hangs himself. In the formlessness of the dying culture, it is the missionary who takes note of the event, reminding himself to give Okonkwo's gesture a line or two in his work, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

Pub Date: Jan. 23, 1958

ISBN: 0385474547

Page Count: 207

Publisher: McDowell, Obolensky

Review Posted Online: April 23, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1958

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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