When a bullet strikes a powerful political figure, when the burial rites are over and done with, when all that remains of that great promise is his lingering charisma, when the affair is investigated, the verdict rendered, what of those who have stood silent in the churchyard—are their lives, too, ripped by the same bullet?

assassins-01
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: Vanguard
Year: 1975
Pages: 568

Has the deed been done by one assassin? Is there only one who has been destroyed? Or was there more than one who pulled the trigger, more than one whose life is shattered?

THE ASSASSINS is the story of Andrew Petrie, a wealthy right-wing political figure with a reputation for ruthless honesty. More, it is the story of his surviving brothers, Hugh and Stephen, and of his young widow Yvonne. Members of a large, prominent family, they are nevertheless isolated, each alone with his own enemy, his own assassin. In a state of frozen panic, they realize that Andrew’s death has robbed them of the object of their hatred, love, religious compassion—all-consuming emotions that had previously cushioned them against the nightmare of their own emptiness. Their conflicting interpretations of reality—as well as the baffling, tragic events that overtake them—constitute a revelation of the contemporary world, both political and private.


Epigraph

Everybody considers dying important;
but as yet death is no festival.

—NIETZSCHE


Book Covers


Working Title:

Death-Festival


Excerpt

He bathed and bandaged a cut on her foot. On the tender, inner part of her left foot, it had been. Barefoot, she had crossed a patch of sand and weeds, had been looking out at the ocean, had stepped on a piece of glass from a soft drink bottle. The pain was such a surprise, so incredible a sensation—she had been turning over and over in her mind a conversation she and Andrew had had, walking along the beach after breakfast—his passionate admission that, for him, ideas were the only reality—the only permanent reality—the rational side of mankind the only sacred side—never really explored except by a few individuals, isolated, uncertain of their connection with one another: the future of mankind was only through reason, logic, awakened capacities in the brain that were now dormant in nearly everyone. They had talked of Aristotle, whose works he had given her to read—his boyhood books, they were, the margins filled with comments—the lines heavily underscored—they had talked of Plato’s Republic, which Yvonne had once studied—but without the necessary guidance and insight. And then— And now— She had been thinking of—had been rehearsing in her mind the several objections and questions she wanted to make— What did Kant mean by, why was he so obscure in, could it be interpreted that—

The pain, suddenly. Her left foot. How quickly it had happened, and how the blood spurted out onto the sand!


Reviews

Gail Godwin, Chicago Tribune Book World, October 26, 1975, p. 3
5 stars
As we turn the pages rapidly, hypnotically, to find out “who did it,” strange revelations begin to dawn about the nature of power—and the nature of assassinations. It is an easy temptation: to praise this novel for its “relevance.” . . .  But Oates’ novel does not address the miasma of our decade so much as it takes a plunge into the deeper trouble source: the murky, swirling Id, which has been assassinating carriers of the Divine for centuries.

This novel is an objective correlative of its own deepest concerns. Voices in it rave and mutter and contradict one another and threaten and carry out their threats. Much of the time I had the feeling I was turned in on the Id itself, or on America having a nightmare. But surrounding the chaos, gently cordoning it back from the white margins, is a structure, an intelligence, the hand of the writer—in control. This is a powerful, disturbing piece of work, and I think it is the most structurally ambitious of Oates’ novels. To superimpose form upon a world in which even God seems to be ranting is perhaps to compose a “book of hours,” illuminated sumptuously with assassins rather than snakes and dragons and containing hourly “prayers” in the form of questions characters ask themselves.

Kathleen Cushman, National Observer, January 10, 1976, p. 19
4 stars
Joyce Carol Oates’s latest novel digs its heels into the fertile ground of human politics and stays there through insanity and sainthood and the decaying stink of panic. It is an ambitious and a difficult book, perhaps flawed in proportion, but satisfying. . . .

Three persons dominate this novel, all laden with the guilt of the assassin even as the assassin remains unidentified. The human situation could not be more dramatic, its consequences more encompassing. Oates handles its possibilities skillfully and with panache. The Assassins stands out among her works.

Joseph McLellan, Washington Post Book World, November 14, 1976, p. L5
4 stars
Novels about the assassination of a political figure have become so abundant in the past decade as to constitute a distinct genre of fiction. Oates enters that genre (as she has so many others) with a completely new idea: the story of the shooting of a retired senator from a talented and rather eccentric family serves merely as the beginning for an intricate probing of the minds of three persons (a wife and two brothers) closely affected by the event. In effect she has written three books in one—created three distinct but interlocking worlds, each rich and deep in texture—with a single incident as a point of departure.

Publishers Weekly, September 29, 1975, p. 42
4 stars
Dark and brooding and somber, Joyce Carol Oates’s latest study of the American dream gone mad, violence unleashed, family relationships shattered most horribly, is a book you cannot easily forget. Not all of it succeeds, but where it does it does so superbly well. Where it fails is in the overextended ambiguities of the finale. . . . Who the assassins really were we never learn, but the “death” Miss Oates is feverishly exploring is not just physical death, it is the death of the soul, and about that she knows a great deal indeed.

Linda W. Ferguson, San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle, This World, p. 27
3 stars
Nor do the characters have much depth. Oates’ work is essentially cold, brittle, vicious. I have never had any feeling for, any sympathy with, any of her characters. Every one of them is as her protagonist Andrew sees the average human being: “a cripple, a wreck, a parody.”

Good? Yes, Oates is good, very good indeed. “The Assassins,” for instance, is really three novels, told from three completely different points of view, each a rather breathtaking tour de force. But Great? No, Oates is good, not great.

Time, February 23, 1976 p. 65
3 stars
This is her roughest, most repetitious read, yet it is difficult to suggest a briefer way to tell such a complex tale.

Author Oates is best understood alongside the 19th century’s great moral improvers. She is sister-in-arms to Melville, Hawthorne, Twain and Mrs. Stowe. All wanted their writing to better the public they were writing for—even when they despaired of civic improvement. Oates has yet to write a book that liberates as fully as it lacerates. But she cares about the national identity as no other living American novelist does. If she can steady her grip on her terrifying, transmogrifying wit, there may yet be a great novel in the already vast Oates canon.

Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 1975, p. 1084
3 stars
Oates records each frisson of the tormented consciousness with ruthless exactitude. Reading this is like following the spasmodic jerks of a cardiograph stylus through a long nightwatch, and truth to tell, it’s rather a chore. The attention tends to wander—the stasis is too deadening, the range too circumscribed. But then there is the absolute integrity of Oates’ bleak vision and an occasional efficient scene of stark horror—the unique powers of this irritating and demanding writer cannot be altogether dismissed.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1977, p. 17
3 stars
Andrew Petrie, well-known rightwing political leader, is assassinated, and we never know why or by whom. Rather Miss Oates thinks such questions unimportant, for she (regrettably) considers Andrew’s assassination as only one type of assassination, no more significant than other, less obvious types. We follow the subsequent lives of Hugh and Stephen, his brothers, and his widow Yvonne as they move inexorably toward their own fates: guilt, murder, insanity, suicide. As usual, Miss Oates writes beautifully; her characterization is unsurpassed among modern writers. However, the assassination metaphor appears strained, and the book rests on a questionable moral assumption which exceeds literary license.

Alfred P. Klausler, Christian Century, December 17, 1975, pp. 1164-1165
3 stars
[The Assassins] has received a mixed response from reviewers and critics. This tale of a political assassination and its effect on the lives of the victim’s friends and kin appeals to the more cerebral whodunit fans but apparently leaves others unimpressed. Part of the negative reaction may be traced to Oates’s confused and confusing viewpoints, plus some careless writing. Perhaps another source of negative reaction may be envy of a 37-year-old writer (novelist, poet, essayist, playwright) whose prolific output continues to amaze the literary world. . . .

If The Assassins is a parable for our times (and it can certainly be taken for that), the implications are frightening. Despite the detailed probing of her characters, the author cannot—or at least does not—arouse a feeling of compassion for them. Caught as they are in violence, in personality disorders, in horrors of all kinds, there is always the feeling that an important ingredient is missing. Call it pity perhaps, the pity one feels in a Greek or Russian tragedy.

Patricia S. Coyne, National Review, September 3, 1976, pp. 965-966
3 stars
I am rarely enamored of novels which haphazardly deny my own perceptions of life. Nevertheless, when Oates writes this way I feel genuine admiration, for I can say with near-total conviction that her style reflects her own instinctive and automatic perception of human experience. That style has not been painfully contrived with an eye toward literary fashion, as is often the case with her peers. There has been no time. Her last book of short stories was published in March, and this novel is nearly six hundred pages long. And yet she has contrived it perfectly. When her critics suggest querulously that she slow down and rewrite, I cannot imagine what they have in mind. Stylistically, she is irreproachable.

Booklist, November 1, 1975, p. 350
3 stars
Oates pursues her relentlessly darkening vision of contemporary humanity as she explores the aftermath of a political assassination. . . . Oates effectively portrays the anguish and desperation which each character encounters in his existence.

Suzanne Juhasz, Library Journal, November 15, 1975, p. 2174
3 stars
The characters themselves are sensitively but repetitiously drawn: as is often the case, Oates writes beautifully but seems to ignore the need to edit. . . . The novel is vivid but too long; insightful but lacking an underlying intellectual clarity.

R. B. S., Kliatt Paperback Book Guide, Winter 1977, p. 7
3 stars
I can understand why some people, even if they manage to plow through to the end, will throw this book through the living room window, but I can also understand why some people, like myself, will look forward to reading it again. Joyce Carol Oates has written a disturbing, frustrating, fascinating novel.

Elaine Kendall, Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 2, 1975, p. 8
2 stars
There are omens, enigmas, and murky hints in Yvonne’s biography, but they’re essentially trivial, and in no way prepare the reader for the climax of this section. Nothing could. The manner of Yvonne’s death is unspeakable. . . . Ms. Oates has written a parable, not a mystery, and the loose ends are left to ravel as they may. The only point is that there is no point; a valid statement but in this case, totally unsatisfactory.

Though “The Assassins” can be sporadically absorbing, it is an ultimately frustrating book, thwarting the reader at every turn. . . . At the end of 600 turgid pages, the reader is older and sadder, but no wiser. “The Assassins” is a literary Mt. Everest and the only reason to attempt it is because it is there.

Phyllis Grosskurth, Canadian Forum, May 1976, pp. 33-34
2 stars
Oates is fascinated by the charisma of death, that morbid preoccupation with death which perverts so much contemporary literature. Death is a release from the horror of this world, but it is never presented as redemptive or regenerative. . . .

This ironical memento mori is a reminder of Joyce Carol Oates’ perpetual theme that what we see as life is a bizarre masquerade in which God, the master of the revels, takes only death seriously. Like Mr. Prendergast in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, one begins to wonder why God made the world at all.

John Pollock, San Jose Studies, volume 4 issue 2, 1978, pp. 32-40
2 stars
The problem with Oates’s style is that it tends to force a neurotic, fragmented mode of perception upon the reader; that is, the style attempts to re-create in the reader’s mind Hugh’s own psychic chaos by challenging him to an ultimately impossible task: making sense of a world which is seen exclusively through the eyes of a demented ego-maniac. Thus the style itself becomes such an irritating distraction that the reader is likely to miss whatever insights Oates has to offer into Hugh’s personality.

. . . the broken, jerky, Lipsian technique forces the reader to plod through the work at the same time that Oates’s commendable use of suspense pushes the reader forward. In time the reader is almost literally “bent out of shape” by this process. True, he does in that respect “become” Hugh Petrie and can thus empathize with the character, but who wants to become Hugh Petrie? We are back to the problem of the artist’s re-creating experience rather than imitating it.

J. D. O’Hara, New York Times Book Review, November 23, 1975, p. 10
one star
Except for the bumbling Stephen, these characters never deviate into kindness; they use their sickness as a weapon and an excuse, permitting themselves to be selfish, rude, stupid, and disgusting. Apparently such characters attract many readers, perhaps because such readers enjoy vicarious nastiness. . . .

Why? What does it mean? Such questions are pointless. Motivation is unknowable and finally irrelevant in this world of paranoid neurosis: “they” make things happen, and these suspicious, isolated, hysterical victims merely flounder as their sickness bids.

Walter Sullivan, Sewanee Review, Winter 1977, pp. 116-117
one star
Yet even this basic incoherence is not the worst that can be said about The Assassins. Other novelists have been unable to construct long narratives—Thomas Wolfe comes to mind—but the best of them have made up for weaknesses in structure and sometimes in characterization by the sharpness of their perceptions and the energy of their prose. In The Assassins one discerns a great weariness as if the author were half-asleep at the keys: the job seems to have been done by rote: inspiration and even desire appear to be lacking. And one might guess that such was the case. Those who have followed Miss Oates s career know what she can do—or could do when she first started writing. The sheer terror that is generated in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, the worlds that are created in such books as A Garden of Earthly Delights and them, and the impoverished and abused and brilliantly realized heroines of these same fictions testify to the scope of Miss Oates’s talent. Reading the books of her youth for the first time, we had a right to expect more than she is giving us in her maturity. Surely she is writing far too much; surely she owes herself and us more self-discipline.

Peter S. Prescott, Newsweek, October 27, 1975, p. 99-100
one star
Few novelists worth serious attention are also greatly popular, and of those who are, few are willing to risk great failure by innovation. Mailer, Styron and Roth are exceptions, and now Joyce Carol Oates. This is a polite way of saying that she has finally written a very bad, nearly incoherent novel. Yet if “The Assassins” fails to accomplish what its author intended, it is nonetheless a deliberate enterprise. Oates warned us three years ago what we might expect from her: an attempted synthesis of dark energies with a mystical vision, a novel about “our contemporary neurosis—a failure to see how we all participating in a communal consciousness.” . . .

My interpretation of those interior melodramas may not be the author’s, but then “The Assassins” is an obscure novel, long, prolix and ill-disciplined. At times, Oates seem to be defying the reader to make his way through her pages. Her first chapter, for instance, cannot be understood until the book is two-thirds done, and Hugh’s narration is so studded with fragmented phrases, dashes and exclamation points as to become quickly infuriating. The characters are never made interesting or even credible; each is instead an anthology of psychotic response, assembled to advance some comprehensive, obscurely articulated idea of man’s essential harmony.

Judith Thurman, Ms, February 1976, p. 42-43
one star
What is so unnerving to me about The Assassins is that Joyce Carol Oates’s sense of her readers waxes and wanes so unreliably. Sometimes we are there. The writing is full of brilliant recognitions. At other moments she is staring out into the blank behind her typewriter, talking completely to herself. At other moments she gives us the slick, melodramatic hype of the best-seller. . . .

Is she insulting us—is this a joke? Does she have such great skill and such bad taste that she can offer us this sequence of strange courses without noticing their incongruity? Or has the meal been catered completely from her unconscious?

Brian Weiss, Best Sellers, February 1976, p. 334
one star
James Joyce taught us that the amassing of commonplace detail can make a novel. There are several homages to Ulysses in The Assassins, but the two cannot fairly be considered comparable. Ms. Oates does not have Joyce’s inexhaustible sympathy. She satirizes, but she has little humor. The result is that she presents trivia with portentous awe of her own virtuosity. This fatigues the reader, and he does not learn enough from the exercise to justify its claim on his attention.

Michael G. Cooke, Yale Review, Autumn 1976, pp. 148-150
one star
Joyce Carol Oates in The Assassins: A Book of Hours gives an elaborate but also feverish and intensely shallow rendition of the problem of women and violence. She returns to the alarmist, even paranoid spirit of the end of Them, and commits herself to the subject of violence with a relentlessness that all but invents a violence of length.

 

Hilton Kramer, Commentary, March 1976, p. 54-57
hatchet job
Reading this ill-written book, which, in its irritating combination of thoughtless haste and inflated length, seems to have been influenced by the electric typewriter more than by any intelligible novelistic idea, I can fully appreciate for the first time why its author’s copious production of novels, short stories, poems, critical essays, reviews, and sundry other effusions has become something of a scandal in the literary (or at least the publishing) world. Writers genuinely admired and enjoyed, writers whose works are actually read, are not, I think, very often admonished to write less. The suggestion so frequently conveyed, obliquely or otherwise, that Miss Oates writes too much speaks, I find, to a genuine grievance. For The Assassins is the sheerest rubbish. It is a torture to read, as there seems to be no mind in charge of its inchoate assemblage of characters and events, and beyond that, it is extremely repugnant in what it substitutes—with a perfect confidence in its literary efficacy—for the work of intelligence or imagination.

As rubbish, however, the book has an undeniable fascination.

Choice, May 1976, p. 370
Thought, volume 55, December 1980, pp. 478-479


Criticism Excerpts

Waller, G. F. Dreaming America: Obsession and Transcendence in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1979.

What vision of the universe is Oates offering us in The Assassins? Initially, we are faced with a paradox. The world the Petries have inhabited through their history is a world of fact, materialism, cause and effect. And yet, beneath this hard, rational, competitive world we are forced to sense that somehow another level of reality operates. Events occur without apparent reason or cause; the world seems locked together by “certain patterns, certain non-causal events,” where the concept of the “cause” of a violent death may be irrelevant to the real spiritual reverberations that surround an individual’s death. . . . The “assassins” are, in the everyday world of fact, causality, and material reality, an unknown group of murderers; the real assassins may equally be those grasping, destructive egos with which we are burdened and with which we collide. On the spiritual level, we are all assassins.

* * *

Creighton, Joanne V. Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Technically intricate and thematically complex, this novel is unfortunately not as illuminating as a reader would wish, even after repeated readings, because at critical junctures one is not given enough guidance through a Jungian maze. Critical facts remain obscure; dreams merge indistinguishably with reality; dreams are open to a wide range of interpretation; and the characters bear weighty symbolic burdens which sometimes defy both understanding and credibility. Most reviewers failed to realize that Andrew disguised his suicidal death as an assassination, a fact which obviously makes an enormous difference in the way one perceives and evaluates character and action. Since this fact is clearly hinted at in Andrew’s final conversation with his brother Stephen near the end of the novel, the writer cannot fairly be blamed for her readers’ inattention. Yet the novel is too easily misread or incompletely understood. Another fact that has also eluded reviewers is that Yvonne’s “murder” and “dismemberment” do not really happen. Although the text seems to indicate that she awakens from her dream, goes outside, and encounters two “murderers,” apparently her dream continues to the end of Part Two. What happens is thus presented in the form of a psychological, not literal, drama—as is indeed true of much of the novel.

* * *

Friedman, Ellen G. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Ungar, 1980.

The Assassins is a complex experiment in form and theme. In it, Oates has relinquished the third-person narrative and a controlling, central consciousness for the stream of consciousness form of the interior monologue. In fact, in this novel, form becomes theme, for Oates creates characters who are locked within their own egos, within their isolated stream of consciousness, fated to spin monologues, never able to enter into the reciprocity of dialogue. . . . Like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the same story is told from different—in this case three—points of view. It is the darkest of all of Oates’s novels in that no character achieves initiation, or even manages to penetrate beyond the confines of his ego, although Stephen, a religious mystic and the most sympathetic of the three characters, does survive. . . .

The novel’s subtitle, A Book of Hours, refers to the canonical book of hours that traditionally ends with the Office of the Dead. When questioned about the choice of subtitle, Oates gave the somewhat sly explanation that the novel is a meditation on death. Despite the fact that the plot and characters converge on Andrew’s death, that Hugh’s section is replete with death imagery, and that Yvonne’s section is woven with images of the truncation of the life-process (miscarriage, abortion), the book is more a meditation on cultural and psychological death than physical death. . . .

It is perhaps Oates’s ironic achievement that some of her reviewers called this novel a “whodunit” because “whodunit,” the solution to the mystery, is something always withheld, not only withheld but irrelevant. It never occurs to Andrew’s relatives that he committed suicide, which is indicative of their inability to formulate the correct question, let alone discover the answer. They are so intent on discovering an assassin, so obsessed with the mystery, that each entertains the possibility—contrary to fact—of his own guilt. The mystery of the novel implies the larger mystery of Truth and the individual’s incapacity to approach it.

* * *

Bender, Eileen Teper. Joyce Carol Oates: Artist in Residence. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

. . . in private communication and public interviews, Oates suggests that because of Stephen’s presence, her political fable is not uncompromisingly pessimistic. . . . Stephen himself remains a genuine seeker, attentive to the fissure and fracture which characterizes contemporary life. And while The Assassins is in many ways a chronicle of dismemberment, showing the stunted body politic, it engages another subtext. Oates subtitles it “A Book Of Hours,” suggesting the presence of a liturgy which Oates at once deconstructs and reifies.

* * *

Daly, Brenda O. Lavish Self-divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1996.

In this complex novel, Oates also challenges monologic conventions in order to dramatize an author’s democratic kinship with her fellow creatures. As Joanne Creighton remarks, Oates may not have provided most readers with enough textual clues to interpret The Assassins, but this novel deserves attention from those who wish to understand her departures from conventional practices of characterization, plot, and closure. . . .

In their presumed superiority to the physical world, the Petrie men become intellectual assassins, and, in her flight from life of the body, Yvonne imagines herself as one of them. However, the figurative violence—the writer’s lavish self-division into multiple voices—puts into question the artistic, political, and religious beliefs of the Petrie family: their belief in woman-as-flesh and in man-as-hero. Nevertheless, Yvonne is represented not as the dismembered Orpheus or the crucified Christ but simply as a woman writing, a woman imagining herself as “Other.” Oates confirmed this interpretation of the novel during an interview with Robert Phillips. When Phillips said that Andrew’s wife “was never really attacked outside the country house; she never left it. Her maiming was all confined within her head,” Oates replied, “What a surprise! You read the scene exactly as it was meant to be read.” Why do readers miss the textual clues that point to this event as figurative, as a parody of the tragic vision? It may be, as Creighton says, that Oates does not provide enough clues; however, some of the difficulty comes from the fact that The Assassins is written as a deliberate challenge to the deeply held beliefs of her readers.

For example, the novel parodies so-called realistic depictions of political assassinations. Conventional novels of assassination provide clues for detecting enemies “out there,” but fail to examine the enemy within, that is, society’s beliefs or myths. Hence, this novel is certain to be a disappointment for those readers who expect it to depict an investigation—an investigation of physical rather than metaphysical evidence—in order to establish the identity of the “assassins.” The Assassins, written in the aftermath of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, at a time when conspiracy theories flourished, actually repudiates such a method of hunting for assassins. According to this novel, the object of the hunt is not to identify a particular assassin, but to recognize that, in the very American struggle for dominion over others, we all become assassins. As The Assassins points out, though Americans take pride in our supposed democracy, widely shared aristocratic beliefs, such as those held by the Petrie family, are responsible for the violence in our culture.

* * *

Johnson, Greg. Invisible Writer: A Biography of Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Dutton, 1998.

Heralding a new direction for her writing, The Assassins was in many ways Joyce’s most ambitious novel to date: its layering of symbolism and literary allusion, its combination of psychological realism and dark, absurdist humor, and its larger vision of three isolated selves, each hopelessly embalmed in a monstrous subjectivity and together representing the random chaos and violence of an American society composed of people like them, constituted an intellectually formidable achievement.

Yet the “timeless” vision of The Assassins precluded its achieving some of the important qualities—dramatic tension and dynamic momentum, especially—that had distinguished them, Wonderland, and Do With Me What You Will. . . . For all its dazzling complexity this highly calculated novel lies inert on the page, a slow-moving morass of death-haunted perceptions and details that seldom achieves the hypnotic power of Joyce’s other mature novels. . . . In the context of literary history, The Assassins is analogous to Melville’s Pierre or Faulkner’s A Fable, a far-reaching work by a major writer that nonetheless goes hopelessly awry.

* * *

Cologne-Brookes, Gavin. Dark Eyes on America: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2005.

While The Assassins has all the signs of being a process of experimental thought, it remains a necessary doodle on the margins of Oates’s career. Its three voices portray a movement from almost total solipsism (Hugh), through a problematic relationship between the inner and outer world (Yvonne), to transcendence of ego (Stephen). The poisonous Hugh at least touches on the relationship between creative output and the social world. Goya, too, says Hugh, “discovered his genius the day he dared to give up pleasing others.” There are signs, starting with The Assassins, that Oates decided to do much the same, and so discover her own genius. To do this, however, she had to go back to the drawing board, to rub out and redesign the novel form as practised by her precursors to suit her evolving vision. Having begun with the working title Death Festival, The Assassins might as easily have been called As I Lay Dead. With its competing voices all coming to terms with the senator’s death, it owes much to Faulkner’s innovations in The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. . . .

Stephen, then, who does not entirely believe in his own existence, is the novel’s hero because he frees himself of that self-absorption. By the end, he is roaming America, touching others’ lives, visiting friends who remember him while he is there and forget him when he goes. He is perpetually in motion in his unending willingness to accommodate diverse viewpoints. Oates had begun to come into her own, and for the next few novels she would explore ever more diverse and wild territories, slipping like Stephen in and out of all variety of American eras and American minds. A necessary prerequisite for that exploration . . . would be formal experimentation in terms of the relations between the self and others, inner and outer worlds, mirrors and windows: what might be meant by “myself versus the world” or “myself versus myself” had implications for the formal conventions of the novel as a tool for probing social issues.


Image: Utrecht Book of Hours


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