“Amazingly gifted” was how The Times Literary Supplement recently described Joyce Carol Oates, and we would add “remarkably productive”—in 1984, not one but two of her works, the novel Mysteries of Winterthurn and a collection of stories, Last Days, were chosen by the New York Times Book Review for their list of outstanding books of the year. Soon after came the justly admired Solstice, which confirmed “the important place Joyce Carol Oates occupies in American letters as a novelist of the first rank.”*
Now we have Marya, a profound and hauntingly truthful portrait of a modern woman in search of self-understanding and fulfillment. This is the most deeply personal, and perhaps the most fascinating, of Joyce Carol Oates’s novels. The woman is Marya Knauer, and her life is given to us in its successive, significant stages, from earliest childhood in violence and poverty until her mid-thirties, when she is quite famous as a critic and intellectual commentator, a frequent American delegate to international conferences. At whatever stage, Marya is unforgettable, and the course of her life seems as unpredictable and, in retrospect, as inevitable as life itself.
For though Marya wants to be like “the others,” by the time she has reached high school, she knows that she cannot be—too bright, her teachers tell her; singled out, her priest tells her; too smart-alecky, says the aunt who brings her up. She is by nature one of those who observe, who see and remember everything that happens to them, who see and listen to people around them, who want to participate and share in what society describes as the good life—but cannot, not quite.
High school, college, graduate school, teaching, love affairs—her life outwardly follows a conventional enough path. At the end she has become a woman to be admired, loved, and even envied. Or so she seems to others. Yet it is not unimportant that in our last glimpse of her, Marya is still seeking a clarity of vision, a new beginning. If she were a writer of fiction, one feels, she would write precisely the book we have now—for only then would she understand Marya as poignantly and powerfully as we ourselves do, reading of her in this extraordinary novel by Joyce Carol Oates.
* Joan Mellen, Newsday
No one was responsible, she hadn’t touched the jack or she’d touched it so gently it couldn’t possibly have slipped, but suddenly everything buckled and gave way—the car crashed down, Lee screamed in shock and pain, Marya stood there frozen, mute, staring. She was too frightened to think except for the crazed thought that car tires are made of rubber so Lee couldn’t be killed could he?—his leg couldn’t be severed from his body could it?
She saw he had lost consciousness. Still, the upper part of his body writhed, convulsed. She backed away in terror. Was he dead? Who was to blame? How could there be blood if the tire was made of rubber, wasn’t rubber soft, wouldn’t rubber bend?—blood on the filthy cement floor, blood mixing with oil lifting tiny flecks of dust and dirt, snaking its way in her direction.
How do you like it now pig pig pig pig pig.
My first act of freedom will be to believe in freedom
“I Know You!”: The Implications of Knowing in Joyce Carol Oates’s Marya: A Life by Josephene T.M. Kealey, in Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies.
A special message for the [Franklin Library] first edition from Joyce Carol Oates:
Marya: A Life will very likely remain the most “personal” of my novels (along with a novel-in-progress called The Green Island [You Must Remember This] ) though it is not, in the strictest sense, autobiographical. It contains some autobiographical material, particularly in its opening sections, and it is set, for the most part, in places identical with or closely resembling places I have lived—Innisfail and its surrounding countryside are akin to Lockport, New York, and its surrounding countryside, where I grew up; Port Oriskany shares some characteristics with Syracuse, New York, where I went to college—but I am not Marya Knauer (who stopped writing fiction because it disturbed her too deeply) and Marya is surely not I (who have been spared Marya’s grimmer experiences with men). Though her author’s feelings toward her are sisterly, if at times ambivalent, I don’t believe that Marya represents me any more than do several of my female characters of recent novels—Sheila Trask, for instance, of Solstice, or Deirdre of the Spirits of A Bloodsmoor Romance; or even the unregenerate murderess Perdita of Mysteries of Winterthurn. What we have in common, I’d guess, is that we aren’t always easy to like. Our femaleness seems to exclude femininity.
Marya was an extremely difficult novel to write, perhaps because it is both “personal” and “fictional.” Many of Marya’s thoughts and impressions parallel my own at her approximate age but the circumstances that provoke them have been altered, as have most of the characters. To the author, Marya’s mixture of intimacy and strangeness suggests a dream in which the domestic features of one’s life appear side by side with unrecognizable elements; yet, evidently, all constitute a pattern. What is most autobiographical about the novel is its inner kernel of emotion—Marya’s half-conscious and often despairing quest for her own elusive self.
Of all my novels Marya is the only one I could not approach head-on. I had to write it in self-contained sections, each dealing with a specific phase of Marya’s life, and after finishing each of these sections I was determined not to write another—the tension was too great. I worried that I might be trespassing—transgressing?—in some undefined way venturing onto forbidden ground. At least one family secret I had not known, or had not, in any case, known that I knew, was explored in fictional form before it was revealed to me in life, by a relative. But it was not until I wrote the sentence “Marya, this will cut your life in two” on the novel’s final page that I fully understood Marya’s story, and was then in a position to begin again and to recast it as a single work of prose fiction. Recalling now how obsessively certain pages of the novel were written and rewritten it seems to me miraculous that the novel was ever completed at all.
The spirit of William James, our greatest American philosopher, pervades Marya’s story. My first act of freedom, James says, is to believe in freedom. For James it is the fluidity of experience and not its Platonic “essence” that is significant, for truth is relative, ever-changing, indeterminate; and life is a process rather like a stream. Human beings forge their own souls by way of the choices they make, large and small, conscious and half-conscious. James’s philosophy is ideally suited to the New World in which identity (social, historical, familial) is not permanent; it is a philosophy of the individual, stubborn, self-reliant, and ultimately mysterious. The democratic “pluralistic” universe of which James wrote in such startlingly contemporary terms is one in which old traditions and standards of morality are judged largely useless unless they can be regenerated in uniquely individual terms. This is of course Marya Knauer’s universe, in which one forges one’s own soul, for better or worse.
For the novelist, the act of writing even a short novel is an act of faith sustained through many months. It has been said by Aldous Huxley that all art is a quest for grace, and it has been said, by Flannery O’Connor among others, that merely to write fiction is an optimistic gesture: pessimists don’t write novels. To write is to make a plea for some sort of human sympathy and communication. To write is to risk being rejected, ridiculed, misunderstood. To write is to attempt to make contact between the world out there and the world in here, both of them mysterious, perhaps ultimately unknowable.
Whether Marya Knauer’s story is in any way my own “story,” it became my story during the writing of the novel; and it is my hope that, however obliquely and indirectly, it will strike chords in readers who, like Marya, choose finally not to accept the terms of their own betrayal.
J. C. O.
Princeton, New Jersey
- Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 1985, p1350
- Booklist, January 1, 1986, p642
- Publisher’s Weekly, January 3, 1986, p42
- New York Times, February 20, 1986, p23
- Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1986
- Washington Post Book World, February 23, 1986, p7
- Antioch Review, Spring, 1986, p252
- New York Times Book Review, March 2, 1986, p7
- Ms., March, 1986, p44
- Library Journal, March 15, 1986, p78
- Newsweek, March 29, 1986, p75
- Village Voice, May 20, 1986, p56
- Hudson Review, Summer, 1986, p309
- Working Woman, June, 1986, p151
- World Literature Today, Autumn, 1986, p631
- Spectator, January 10, 1987, p26
- Observer, January 11, 1987, p22
- Punch, January 14, 1987, p42
- Times Literary Supplement, January 16, 1987, p55
- London Review of Books, February 19, 1987, p16
- Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies, 2014
Image: The Cure of Folly (Extraction of the Stone of Madness) 1475-80 —Hieronymous Bosch