By Joyce Carol Oates
Loretta Wendall, her daughter Maureen, and her son Jules are “them”—three characters held together by corroding hatred and mute love.
“Them” are also the forces that tear at their happiness—ignorance, intolerance, the loneliness of being a part and yet apart; the differences between rich and poor, white and black, the loved and the lover.
Through a complex field of time and space—Detroit and its environs between 1937 and 1967—the three Wendalls experience their everydays in the midst of ominous history, trying by almost any means to cope with the “thems” they cannot understand, each seeking desperately to placate a driving restlessness with a freedom of abandon, to find his own identity, to define his unique, invulnerable self. From the Depression of the thirties to the violence of the sixties, Miss Oates penetrates the point of view of each character to show the impact of events upon him, the subtle relationships of each to the other, the innermost feelings and emotions that spur each to his own dream and action.
THEM is an extraordinary novel, a work that once again reveals Miss Oates’s remarkable and compassionate insight, her true narrative skill, and her high artistry.
This is a work of history in fictional form—that is, in personal perspective, which is the only kind of history that exists. In the years 1962-1967 I taught English at the University of Detroit, which is a school run by Jesuits and attended by several thousand students, many of them commuting students. It was during this period that I met the “Maureen Wendall” of this narrative. She had been a student of mine in a night course, and a few years later she wrote to me and we became acquainted. Her various problems and complexities overwhelmed me, and I became aware of her life story, her life as the possibility for a story, perhaps drawn to her by certain similarities between her and me—as she remarks in one of the letters. My initial feeling about her life was, “This must be fiction, this can’t all be real!” My more permanent feeling was, “This is the only kind of fiction that is real.” And so the novel them, which is truly about a specific “them” and not just a literary technique of pointing to us all, is based mainly upon Maureen’s numerous recollections. Her remarks, where possible, have been incorporated into the narrative verbatim, and it is to her terrible obsession with her personal history that I owe the voluminous details of this novel. For Maureen, this “confession” had the effect of a kind of psychological therapy, of probably temporary benefit; for me, as a witness, so much material had the effect of temporarily blocking out my own reality, my personal life, and substituting for it the various nightmare adventures of the Wendalls. Their lives pressed upon mine eerily, so that I began to dream about them instead of about myself, dreaming and redreaming their lives. Because their world was so remote from me it entered me with tremendous power, and in a sense the novel wrote itself. Certain episodes, however, have been revised after careful research indicated that their context was confused. Nothing in the novel has been exaggerated in order to increase the possibility of drama—indeed, the various sordid and shocking events of slum life, detailed in other naturalistic works, have been understated here, mainly because of my fear that too much reality would become unbearable.
Since then we have all left Detroit—Maureen is now a housewife in Dearborn, Michigan; I am teaching in another university; and Jules Wendall, that strange young man, is probably still in California. One day he will probably be writing his own version of this novel, to which he will not give the rather disdainful and timorous title them.
- National Book Award: winner
- Pulitzer Prize: finalist
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
“Love and Money”
them is the third book in the Wonderland Quartet
- A Garden of Earthly Delights
- Expensive People
Alone among my novels them is prefaced by an Author’s Note, terse, equivocal, and possibly helpful—at the very least by directing the reader’s attention to the fact, not a negligible one, that the title them refers to certain people and is not a shorthand “poetic” way of alluding to all Americans. Who are these people?—Loretta and her children Jules and Maureen, and to a lesser extent their father, their stepfather, their uncle Brock, their lost sister Betty, their young brother Randolph? They are Americans of a certain class and era—infected, in part, by the glamour of America, the adventure of aggressive and futile dreams—but they are not Americans most of us know. Neither impoverished enough to be italicized against the prodigious wealth of their culture, nor affluent enough to be comfortably assimilated into it, the Wendalls exist—and they continue to exist—in a world for which, for the most part, despair itself is a luxury, incompletely understood, and failure unthinkable: because no American and no public models for failure are available with whom the disenfranchised might identify. If their lives are temporarily “unhappy,” it never occurs to such people (not even the quick, intelligent, sweetly crafty Jules) that their dreams are at fault for having deluded them; they think instead, and indeed must continue to think, that success—that is, “happiness”—lies not far ahead in the future and can be grasped if only one knows how to play the game.
Of course, I lived in Detroit up to and including the days of the 1967 riots, and was shaken by the experience, and brooded upon it, like most Detroiters, and came to see that the genesis of these specific acts of violence lay far in the past and were certainly not limited to one troubled city (which, since 1967, has in fact become increasingly troubled). Fire burns and does its duty is a mystic utterance, characteristically misunderstood by Jules Wendall, and misunderstood, in effect, by his culture; but there is no mistaking the mad, demonic certainty with which its psychological message is comprehended by the disenfranchised, who must live out their lives in so publicly celebratory an affluent society. The instinct to destroy is inadequately understood by those of us who work to create, and who are governed by a sense, itself instinctive, of the need to preserve the past, which is always embodied in a healthy society; I have come to feel that it is not an instinct that can be, in any helpful way,understood. We look upon the murderer, or the rapist, or the vandal, and try to project our own selves, our ways of perceiving, into him; and we inevitably fail. There are others, and we are not among them. Though we all share emotions (and long before modern psychological theory it was recognized that the human psyche is universal, that we are all capable of one another’s crimes and one another’s virtues), very few of these emotions are allowed above the threshold of consciousness; we do notknow, we do not understand, unless we experience. And it is only through art, an art seriously committed to the portrayal of a dense, complex, stubborn, and irreducible reality, one in which human beings are presented honestly, without sentimentality and without cynicism, that we can hope to approximate the experience of another’s life. Tragedy, it is said, breaks down the barriers between human beings: but it should be argued that all serious works of art break down these barriers, affirming our kinship with one another.
From the very first, when them was published in 1969, I received letters from readers who inquire, at times with a desperation I find guiltily moving, what has become of the Wendalls—of Jules primarily, and of Maureen. Have I kept in contact with them? Is Jules really in California? Is Maureen married, and is she happy or unhappy? And what of the feckless Loretta—what is she doing now? The most extraordinary letter I received was written in longhand and covered many pages of scented stationery; it was a troubled appeal from a disturbed woman who believed that she was hopelessly in love with Jules . . . since she thought about him constantly, was unfaithful to her husband with him in her imagination, and would I please send her Jules’s address so that she might go to him at once . . . ? Since I shared, to a limited extent, her deep regard for Jules, I sympathized with her predicament, but wrote to explain that Jules Wendall, while “real” enough in them, is a fictional character so far as the world itself goes. If he and Maureen and Loretta are to be located anywhere, it is in my imagination; just as the ghostly “Joyce Carol Oates” who appears, indirectly, obliquely, in the narrative, is a fictional character who, though driving the very car I drove in those years, is assuredly not me.
Yes, readers have said, but surely Maureen was “real”—surely you did have a student like her who told you her family history, as the Author’s Note claims? True: and yet not true. Maureen Wendall, like her brother Jules, is a composite character. While she sets herself in opposition to me, to the person she imagines me to be (happily married, economically secure, fruitfully engaged in a profession that is, even at the worst of times, rewarding and stimulating and worthwhile), I see shadowy aspects of myself in her, and recognize my voice in her in ways I would not have understood when I wrote the novel. I was troubled in writing it, for indeed the Wendalls’ lives became my own, and their souls entered mine; but it was, and remains, a work of love; and like all those who love, I cannot set myself up to judge. Are Jules and Maureen criminals . . . or are they tragically heroic (as survivors of any catastrophe might be considered “heroic”) in their surprisingly similar ways? For nearly a decade now I’ve wondered, but I can’t say; I can’t judge.
Time, October 10, 1969, pp. 106, 108
With the publication of Them at the age of 31, she emerges as that rarity in American fiction, a writer who seems to grow with each new book. . . .
On the surface, the book is hard, cold and terrifying. Its core, however, is molten with sympathy for the struggles of the major characters. The result is Urban Gothic, a type of naturalism saved from the simple cataloguing of disasters by the author’s ability to transform the mysteries of experience into vital characterizations. . . .
Although rooted in case history, Them is fiction in the purist sense: data, perception, feeling transformed by language and imagination into a new existence with a vitality that can even survive critical explanation.
Calvin Bedient, The Nation, December 1, 1969, p609-611
Them has the historical validity and something of the factual discipline and verbatim reportage of a documentary—but how much more rare and deep it is than this black-and-white, shopworn term can suggest. For what Them really amounts to is an almost uncanny act of dramatic self-transmutation. . . . Neither stylist, architect, judge nor philosopher, [Oates] is simply, and astonishingly, them.
. . . The striking quality of this writer’s imagination has always been its kinetic aspect of grip and gland, its way of entering her characters and grappling out their lives with them, its instant access to the psyche’s confused and impossible needs, to the pain both of being connected and of standing apart. Above all, the pain of connection, for Miss Oates’s characters almost always move in a thick, down-dragging element of human relationships, exposed, gasping, embattled, yet now and then surprised by their own cunning or violence, as if by some monstrous stranger in themselves who is yet more themselves than any conscious self they have known. . . .
In this large, life-containing novel, Joyce Carol Oates definitely arrives, writing sustainedly at the top of her bent and with so much humanizing impact that a merely literary judgement comes to seem immaterial, though of such a judgment the novel need stand in no fear at all.
Robert M. Adams, New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1969, p4
Miss Oates writes a vehement, voluminous, kaleidoscopic novel, more deeply rooted in social observation than current fiction usually tends to be.
. . . altogether it’s a fine performance—psychologically more subtle than “A Garden of Earthly Delights,” structurally less predictable, but with the same strong flow of verbal and imaginative energy.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1969, p801
Publishers Weekly, August 11, 1969, p40
Newsweek, September 29, 1969, p120-122
Atlantic, October 1969, p128-129
Library Journal, October 1, 1969, p3469
New York Times, October 1, 1969, p45
Christian Science Monitor, October 30, 1969, p12
Saturday Review, November 22, 1969, p71+
Washington Post Book World, November 23, 1969, p13
National Observer, November 24, 1969, p25
Booklist, December 1, 1969, p439
New Yorker, December 6, 1969, p238+
Newsweek, December 22, 1969, p98
American Libraries, January 1970, p91
New York Review of Books, February 12, 1970, p22-24
Yale Review, Spring 1970, 433-435
Best Sellers, April 1, 1970, p14-15
America, May 2, 1970, p478
New York Review of Books, February 11, 1971, p32-34
Listener, March 18, 1971, p344-345
Times Literary Supplement, March 19, 1971, p313
Observer, March 21, 1971, p37
Books and Bookmen, June 1971, p38
Contemporary Literature, Summer 1971, p208
New Statesman, October 6, 1972, p482