A Novel by Joyce Carol Oates
The bonds of family are tested in the wake of a profound tragedy, providing a look at the darker side of our society.
Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. is a gripping examination of contemporary America through the prism of a family tragedy: when a powerful parent dies, each of his adult children reacts in startling and unexpected ways, and his grieving widow in the most surprising way of all.
Stark and penetrating, Joyce Carol Oates’s latest novel is a vivid exploration of psychological trauma, class warfare, grief, and eventual healing, as well as an intimate family novel in the tradition of the author’s bestselling We Were the Mulvaneys.
A Clear Midnight
This is thy hour, O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
October 18, 2010
I: THE VIGIL
- Wind Chimes
- The Cruel Sister
- Still Alive
- The Handclasp
- The Vigil
- The Seed
- The Swimmer
- The Party
- The Return of Whitey
- The Blessing Stopped
- The Steady Hand
- Going Home
II: THE SIEGE
October 2010–April 2011
- “What Did You Do with Daddy?”
- The Strong One
- The Last Will & Testament of John Earle McClaren
- The Beneficiary
- The Widow’s Orgy
- The Shaking Hand
III: UNTITLED: WIDOW
April 2011–June 2011
- Mack the Knife
- The Teasing
- The Anger
- The Wave
- Demon Rakshasa
- Recurring Dreams of the McClaren Children
- May Heat
- Visions at Duchtown
- Untitled: Widow
- Dear Hugo
IV: THE STARS
June 2011–December 2011
- The Dice
- Dear Hugo
- The Hornets
- Black Rush
- The Handshake
- The Braid
- The Last Will & Testament of Virgil McClaren
- The Murderous Heart
- The Kiss
- Thanksgiving 2011
- Wind Chimes
It is so tempting to give up! So tempting, so tired. His legs heavy . . .
Not like Whitey McClaren, to give up. Goddamn he will not.
Never a good swimmer, his legs are too heavy. But he is swimming now. Trying.
Wind-buffeted waves. Very hard to swim against. Swift current. Cold.
Barely, keep afloat. Just—his head—uplifted, at tremendous strain. One breath at a time.
Swimming wasn’t his sport. Hadn’t the right body shape to cut through the water. Too inward. Throwing you back on your own thoughts, not good.
Football was his sport. Running, careening together, tangling legs, headbutts, piling on . . . Tackling: that word, he’d loved.
Loved the sweat smell, his own and the other guys’. And the dirt smell.
Swimmers stink of chlorine, too clean. Up your nostrils. Christ!
Touch another guy in the pool, brush legs, what the hell . . . Repulsive like lizard skin.
Harsh clean chemical smell in this damned place: antiseptic.
What did his scientist daughter say: Life is bacteria, Daddy.
The kids, how’d they grow up so fast? Turned his back, there was Thom moved out of town. Beverly, pregnant. Slap in the face but no, not right to think that way.
You know better, Whitey. Please.
You can’t possibly be jealous of your own son-in-law.
And now grandchildren. Too many! Names slipping from him like water through outspread fingers.
Christ, life is a struggle. Anybody who tells you anything else is a liar.
The greatest effort—breathe . . .
Pushing, shoving. Trying to get free, to breathe. Shouts of strangers in his face, booted feet kicking. Two of them.
Had that been real? Had it?
Electrocuted. He’d stepped, or fallen, onto a wire cracking electricity . . .
His face. Throat. Afire.
Not possible. Ridiculous.
But in this rough-rippling current, a dark wind. Frantic exertion of arms, legs. His strong shoulders, or shoulders that had once been strong only days ago. Arms like frantic blades propelling him upward.
Can’t give up. Can’t drown. Love you so.
Oh God, love you all.
Leo Robson, The New Yorker, July 6 & 13, 2020
Oates’s habits are designed to unsettle us and, though pleasure is never out of the equation, the novel avoids many traditional narrative strategies for ginning up tension. . . . And yet there is great joy to be derived from the novel’s submerged patterns, its mind-boggling fecundity, its gallimaufry of devices (stream of consciousness, analytic omniscience, sentences both snaking and staccato), its combination of intricacy and lucidity. . . .
Although Oates rejects cohesion as a formal virtue, she has a coherent vision of what literature can deliver. She believes in the itching and the ornery and the oddly shaped, and has been trying to produce fiction that feels as irreducible to simple meanings, as resistant to paraphrase, as the subject matter it portrays.
Pam Miller, Star Tribune (Minnesota), June 6, 2020
Over hundreds of pages, their relationships play out in raw, authentic detail. Their encounters are revelatory, not just in the realm of family trickiness, but in the larger context of American culture, which these days is most painfully represented by people who lack the ability to step back and consider the other and his or her circumstances.
It is brilliant . . . . “Night” is spot on in a slightly earlier era, one characterized by a racial divide many white Americans fail to comprehend, as well as the fractious family dynamic that many of us know all too well.
Eric K. Anderson, Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies, Volume 5 (pdf)
. . . the novel powerfully shows that it’s not only the institutionalized racism found in certain sections of the American police force that needs to change, but also the hearts and minds of the country’s citizens who categorize those who are different from them as others without even realizing why they’re doing it.
Hephzibah Anderson, The Guardian, June 15, 2020
Despite its bulk, this is a novel that doesn’t so much sprawl as scamper, at times darting purposefully off in the direction of a deadpan comedy of manners, a courtroom drama, a philosophical enquiry into the nature of art. It also provides a timely as well as damning snapshot of race relations and police brutality in the US. . . . There is much to relish in Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars., from its nimble pace to exuberant set pieces. As a portrait of a family and a nation, it’s funny and tragic and sometimes bleak. Indeed, if there’s fault to be found it’s simply that the novel reads like multiple books in one, and, inevitably, some of its narrative strands get passed over too quickly. This is particularly true of the sections dealing with police racism and its fallout.
Allan Massie, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday, June 13, 2020
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.
Bret Anthony Johnston, New York Times Book Review, June 9, 2020
Oates is at her best — and make no mistake, her best can be spellbinding and heart-wrenching — when she inhabits Jessalyn. Widowhood besieges her, and “in the siege she has lost everything.” . . . Jessalyn is also resilient, hopelessly so, but as anyone devastated by loss will attest, and as Oates makes achingly clear, resilience is typically more burden than blessing. “At her most unhappy,” Oates writes of Jessalyn, “she remained sane. Was that her punishment? — an irrevocable and implacable sanity?” It’s a revelatory moment in a disquieting novel.
Publishers Weekly, February 2020
Oates’s quintessential examination of grief … draws on the closing lines of Walt Whitman’s “A Clear Midnight,” which reverberate and reappear throughout this weighty chronicle of a family’s reckoning with the death of a father and husband. … With precise, authoritative prose that reads like an inquest written by a poet (“death makes of all that is familiar, unfamiliar”), Oates keep the reader engaged throughout the sprawling narrative. This is a significant and admirable entry in the Oates canon.
Lauren Gilbert, Library Journal, March 2020
A poetic meditation on psychological trauma and a complex and nuanced portrait of a grieving family.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2020
Oates’ storyline would be the stuff of comedy in other hands—think of the recent movie Knives Out, for instance—but she makes of it a brooding, thoughtful study of how people respond to stress and loss, which is not always well and not always nicely. Yet, somehow, everyone endures, some experience unexpected happiness, and the story ends on a note that finds hope amid sorrow and division. Long and diffuse, but, as with all Oates, well worth reading.
Carol Haggas, Booklist, April 15, 2020
While Oates purposefully plumbs the depths of each family member’s agonizing loss, her perceptive study of Jessalyn’s widowhood stands out as an impressive and impassioned portrait of this distressing life journey.
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