Book review: Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. By Joyce Carol Oates

An unexpected death is the starting point for Joyce Carol Oates to explore an American family’s grief in brilliant – if overlong – fashion

Joyce Carol Oates PIC: Thos Robinson / Getty Images

Joyce Carol Oates has written some 60 novels, also collections of short stories and poetry, while still finding time to teach others and being Professor of Humanities at Princeton. One might say of her what the Dictionary of National Biography said of the Scottish Victorian novelist Margaret Oliphant: that she has “lived a life of slavery to the pen,” but with, one should add, unbridled enthusiasm.

The Victorian echo is fair enough. This new novel is what Henry James would have called “a baggy monster,” though also, to be fair, a strangely exhilarating one. Its theme may be called Victorian too: the story of coming to terms with the death of a loved, revered and dominating paterfamilias.

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John Earle McClaren, always known as Whitey, is a rich, successful businessman and sometime moderate Republican mayor of a city in New York State. He comes on two policemen beating up an immigrant, an Indian doctor. When he intervenes, they turn on him, and, not recognizing him as a prominent citizen, knock him down and taser him. He will die in hospital.

His widow, Jessalyn, has been the perfect Ladies Home Journal American wife and mother. We may be in Trump’s America, but she belongs to Eisenhower’s. There are five children, all grown-up, in years anyway, even if none is perhaps emotionally adult. The oldest, Thom, married with children, runs one branch of the family business efficiently. Thom is the first to recognize that the cause of Whitey’s death is not what it seems and that there has been a police cover-up.

The second is Beverley, also married with children, a career wife and mother in what is now an outdated style, and already tippling; her response to the death will see her teeter into alcoholism. Number three is Lorene, a high school principal, capable and intense, already emotionally disturbed. “You could not easily imagine her as a girl. You could not easily imagine her as female.” Apparently self-sufficient, is she heading for a breakdown?Daughter three is Sophia, the prettiest and nicest. She works as a researcher in a laboratory and lacks self-confidence.

Finally there is Virgil, not quite the black sheep of the family, not quite a drop-out, an artist (of sorts), an idealist, who lives in a sort of commune. Thom, Beverley and Lorene all dislike him and disapprove of him, with his pony-tail, disreputable friends and perhaps ambiguous sexuality. Whitey never understood him but, as his will shows, treated him as the equal of his brother and sisters.

The first concern of the children is for their mother. She and Whitey were such a couple. Can she manage without him? For a time indeed it seems she can’t. Will she remain the bereaved widow or will she adjust to a new life, and can the children accept that as a possibility?

The novel traces their lives over the year that follows Whitey’s death. What follows is sometimes surprising, never incredible because the characters and their situation have been so thoroughly imagined.

This book is absorbing, but it is also very long. Joyce Carol Oates has a wide vocabulary but the word “economy” doesn’t feature in it. Scenes are prolonged for paragraphs after their point has been made. Though she writes mostly in short sentences, they pile up one after the other, and it will be a very patient and dutiful reader who doesn’t yield to the temptation of skipping or just letting the eye flick over a page or two.

Though style and setting are very different, there are ways in which Oates recalls late Iris Murdoch novels. There is the same utter belief in what she is doing, the same extravagance and the same ability to persuade you to read on; also, I suspect, the same refusal to accept editorial revision even if such revision might have improved the novel. Yet, despite the author’s self-indulgence, repetitiveness and verbosity, the novel works. It holds the attention, rings true, and gives pleasure. The subject – how you accommodate to loss – is real and important, and the characters have a credibility that is rare in much fashionable fiction today. Joyce Carol Oates writes about other people, not about herself. Which is a relief.

Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. By Joyce Carol Oates, 4th Estate, 787pp, £18.99

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