Echoes of countless other Joyce Carol Oates novels and stories clog this third “novel of suspense” offered as the work of her most recent pseudonymous incarnation.
Its “mystery” is the disappearance and presumable murder of wealthy art patron Drewe Hildebrand, as reported—hysterically—by her teenaged niece Annemarie Straube, renamed “Marta” by the glamorous aunt who had rescued her from a family (that of Drewe’s brother) afflicted with crime, drug addiction and scandal. In other words, we’re once again in Oates country: upstate New York, where (we learn, piecemeal, from Marta’s feverish memories) Drewe used her inherited wealth to create an artists’ colony, supporting and celebrating the work of such maverick artists (and former lovers) as intemperate and ungainly visionary Virgil West and Scottish chauvinist-pig poseur Xenia (born Gregor MacSweeney). The latter’s creations of “bio-anatomical” art, whereby sculpted clay heads are “masked” with the subject’s own blood, presumably aroused both the art-lover and the feral nonconformist in Drewe—and may have precipitated her uncertain fate. We’ve seen all this before: the borderline-sexual obsessive relationships, the numbing recycling of scant background details (e.g., the death by drug overdose of a young woman artist initially favored, then dumped by the impulsive Drewe), the catapulting proliferation of crises and climaxes. Oates layers in references to Drewe’s willed escape from her humble beginnings, her dalliance with the drug- and sex-addicts who hung out at Andy Warhol’s Factory, her fanatical pursuit of culture and sophistication. But the woman is both enigma and cliché: a garish amalgam of waiflike Lost Girl Edie Sedgwick and Gloria Swanson devouring scenery as Norma Desmond. The novel’s unsurprising surprise open ending is a bummer, and the attempts to build “suspense” into the closing pages of a resolutely unsuspenseful narrative are embarrassingly feeble.
Poor stuff by any name, or any standard. Where, oh where, is the author of We Were the Mulvaneys and The Falls?