I've been reading Joyce Carol Oates' new novel, My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike. The title suggests a parody of that modern publishing phenomenon, the misery memoir: and so it is, but its satirical intent ranges far, far wider than that. It is, quite simply, the best novel I've read in ages.
Describing your reasons for liking any book to someone else is always a difficult activity. There is a task I sometimes have to undertake in my work at the bookshop which is both infuriating and, to a writer who loves the challenge of working with restricting forms, irresistible. If you've ever been into a branch of the bookshop I work in, you will have seen various books wrapped in weird ribbons of paper, on which some member of staff or other has scrawled their opinion of the book.
In the language of the trade, these are called 'belly bands'. On my more optimistic days I think of them as a kind of championship belt, showing the world the esteem the book has received in our eyes; on my more cynical days, I find myself imagining them as some kind of truss, strapped on to support a book fatally herniated by the strain of trying to extend itself further than Shopaholic and Daughter or The Business. But whatever metaphor you want to employ, the challenge of the belly-band is this: you have to compress the whole bizarre complex of feelings you have for this particular book into a space that's as long as the book you're describing is wide, and is about two-and-an-eighth times the size of a bus ticket.
It's a near-impossible task. You want to hook the reader, you want to give them some inkling of the plot, and you want to give them some idea of what it is that makes the book so goddam good. Invariably, this leads to reductio ad absurdam. So Cultural Amnesia becomes 'a history of the twentieth century told in a series of potted biographies'; The Book of Revelation has its plot summed up as 'A charismatic dancer is abducted, held prisoner, and tortured by three mysterious women'; and so on. Both of these are accurate enough, but not true. The first book is far more digressive than just biography; the latter deserves a better summary than the Hostel-movie-written-by-Sacher-Masoch pitch that I've reduced it to. But you do these things. You commit these atrocities, because you work with the space you have.
The easiest way to hook the reader into wanting to read My Sister, My Love would be to describe it as a novel inspired by the murder of the American child-beauty-queen JonBenet Ramsey. Which is true as far as it goes: Oates has changed names to protect the accused, made the victim an ice-dancer rather than a pageant idol (a decision which serves her well, allowing the author of On Boxing to convey the drama of her victim's performances in a sporting context which remains as prurient a milieu as the profoundly unsporting world of the beauty contest), and messed with the timelines a little, so that in this narrative the paedophile who issues a confabulated confession to the child-victim's murder emerges in the immediate aftermath of the event, rather than ten years later: but, in the unforgiving space of the belly-band, it seems a superficially acceptable summary.
Except, of course, that it isn't. It's a complete disaster, because it creates the impression that the book will be of interest to a demographic who will probably fail to get beyond the first five pages; and it makes the book sound sleazy and disgusting to those who would actually enjoy it.
The first group are, of course, that subset of the book-buying public that every bookseller regards with at least a little reserve: the habitues of the true crime section, the devotees of the misery memoir. Such individuals, scenting a whiff of puerile blood, will inevitably be drawn to a novel based on the most sensational American murder of the last decade; but they will not stay long, because they, and many of their own sacred cows, are among the targets which come in for a fierce satirical attack. Not least of these revered bovines is the idea of the misery-memoir itself: despite such genre-staples as an unhappy childhood, unloving parents, encounters with paedophiles, drug-addiction, mental illness and the later intervention of an inspiring, religious mentor-figure, Skyler, the novel's titular narrator, remains defiantly miserable throughout, while it is his despised mother who embraces the narrative of suffering, faith and redemption, appearing on tabloid talk shows to hawk 'inspirational' memoirs with titles like From Hell to Heaven: 11 Steps for the Faithful and Pray for Mummy: A Mother's Pilgrimage from Grief to Joy. Betsey Rampike is a woman determined to prove Fitzgerald wrong: her life is all second-act, her fame the unintended consequence of her daughter's murder, a murder which, it's implied, she may well have had a hand in.
While it will frustrate readers drooling to devour accounts of harmed children, one of the joys of this novel for less prurient readers is the way in which Oates skewers the language of a particularly toxic strain of American culture: the language of self-help, and the way in which the facile narratives of this genre have colonised other areas of discourse. Betsey Rampike's 'faith' is not the deep, inner struggle of the true, thinking believer who wrestles with the angel of his dogma, but a self-justifying, self-aggrandising hoodoo which she resorts to when praying that her daughter will win ice-skating competitions and as a way of emerging, unscathed and perversely triumphant, in the aftermath of that same daughter's horrific death; her husband, Bix, speaks to his son in a bizarre argot of business-biog and pop-science cliches, with a few misrendered foreign expressions, picked up in his Cornell days, thrown in; and the Rampike children, like all the other children in Fair Hills, New Jersey, swim around in an alphabet-soup of newly-discovered 'syndromes' and 'disorders', some of which are familiar to this psychology student's eye and some of which, though invented, sound frighteningly close to the kind of thing we may one day see in DSM-V, especially given the ever-closer collusion between psychiatrists, psychologists and the manufacturers of the now-ubiquitous 'meds' that the Fair Hills kids pop and trade like Pokemon cards.
With the exception of the novel's twisted and self-confessedly unreliable protagonist/narrator, almost nobody in this book speaks anything that sounds like truth. Certainly none of the adults do. In place of self-examination, they substitute cliches, ecclesiastical tidbits, misunderstood latin and therapy-talk, all with the aim, not of coming to terms with their predicament, but of 'affirming' themselves and 'moving on.' Someone may have moved their cheese but, by golly, they're going to damn well get back on their horse and ride down the road less travelled until they reach the tipping point that will shift their peaceful, chicken-soup-eating warriors' souls into a purpose-driven life. Drowned out by self-affirmation, reason sleeps, producing monsters.
I began this piece with the intention of using Oates' novel as an entry-point into a discussion of the corrosive effect of the language of self-help on our culture and, in the process, seem to have gotten sidetracked into a full-blown review of the thing, on a scale which would be impossible to reproduce on a belly-band: but in a way, I think this has still been effective. There really is no better discussion of this idea, which is perhaps the most important issue of all for those of us who deeply wish for a return to a more serious culture, than My Sister, My Love. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it will change your life: but it will certainly make you think a lot more deeply about the health of the culture we inhabit.