In Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel, Broke Heart Blues, headlines scream SUBURBAN TEEN TRIED IN SHOOTING DEATH OF MOTHER’S LOVER. That teen, John Reddy Heart, is the book’s mysterious, romantic central figure and the source of endless speculation. Though Oates is neither murderer nor teen idol, she knows what public scrutiny feels like. One of America’s most innovative and prolific literary writers, Oates maintains a low profile, causing fans and critics to wonder who she really is and how she does what she does.
Not only does she write great novels, Oates has written a lot of them, 30 to date. In addition, she’s been teaching at Princeton for the past 20 years, and is releasing this month both a new collection of criticism, Where I’ve Been, and Where I’m Going and Starr Bright Will Be with You Soon, a psychological thriller written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith.
Oates may be a brooding figure of intrigue to others, but her creativity is no mystery at all, just hard work. “I do only one work at a time. I tend to be obsessive and haunted by the work,” said the author, speaking from Princeton. “I don’t work fast but I work a long time every day. I start fairly early in the morning and go till about 1:00. I take time off in the afternoon and I teach two days a week, but then I can sometimes work again till midnight.” But attempts to demystify herself have done no good. Like John Reddy, Oates is often a figure onto whom others project their own personal myths.
The difference between how things appear and how they really are is Oates’s lifelong literary focus. Oates has never indulged her favorite theme with the playful sweetness and humor of Broke Heart Blues. Set in the 1960s, it “deals with murder and a family idealized and ostracized — ” familiar Oates turf — “but mostly it’s about kids and innocence,” said Oates. “I wanted to write about the American infatuation with high school life, of collective nostalgia. It’s not satirical, not cruel. It’s a sympathetic look at these powerful, genuine emotions we forget about when we get older.”
Articulating those volatile emotions are the assembled voices of 40 Willowsville High students Oates crafts to speak as a single, impassioned narrator. They all love John Reddy, but “Most of us at WHS, even guys who’d played varsity basketball with him . . . even the few girls who claimed to have gone out with him, would have to admit we’d never had an actual conversation with John Reddy Heart.”
“That was the most exciting part of writing the novel, putting the voices together in a kind of chorus,” said Oates. “There’s the disparity of what they imagined and what is.” The book’s middle section, written in omniscient third-person narration, is where readers find out “what is.” The real John Reddy can hardly compete with his classmates’ elaborate perceptions.
Similarly, the truth about Oates doesn’t live up to the image of her as an intense, bookish creature. She is not like Broke Heart Blues‘s Evangeline Fesnacht, who, the book tells us, grew up, left Willowsville, and became the author “E.S. Fesnacht, a voice of disturbing but penetrating insight into the tragic human condition.” The line sounds like every Oates review, but the author created Evangeline Fesnacht “as a gentle satire of my own self as I’m perceived by other people. I know my image is different, but I was captain of the basketball team, I played field hockey, I was very athletic. I belonged to many, many clubs.”
Nostalgia implies sentimentality, something of which the author could never be accused. Rather, she evokes the cauldron of adolescent yearning as though still stinging from it. “It’s a time of great excitement and imagination. All kinds of emotions are unleashed. You can be blissfully happy one day and the next really melancholy. These kids in my novel could be plunged into extremes.”
Though she calls Broke Heart Blues her happy novel, it involves strong emotions, “preppies, hoods, jocks, geeks” and other high school cliques, and murder, themes which seem to presage the high school violence of Littleton, Colorado. “Littleton has always been coming,” she said. “There have been school shootings in past years. I certainly hope there won’t be a larger one, but there will probably be other shootings. The emotions of adolescent boys have always been volatile. Now instead of getting into a fight, they get a gun.”
Boys may always be boys, but the times they live in change. Oates notes a loss of innocence in America. Compared to a generation ago, American youth is “much more catapulted into adult life, but they’re not ready for it, not emotionally.” Maybe no one ever is. Oates believes that at our core we remain the awkward, insecure people we were in high school. “That side of American men, the boyishness, is very touching,” she said, “the way they look back to the school years and still feel inadequacy. That makes them human.”
The last section of Broke Heart Blues, a 30th reunion at Willowsville High, reverts to the collective voice of the students, some settled, some bitter, all very much older. Hoping John Reddy, the mysterious outsider of their youth, will somehow appear, they discover the welter of powerful emotions they thought had died.
Thirty years on, Willowsville High students still obsess about John Reddy Heart, and 30 novels since she began writing, Oates still has the ability to surprise. “There are writers who basically write the same book, but some of us as we get older get more playful and experimental,” she said. “Broke Heart Blues is not a form I would have dreamed of using 20 years ago.”
Freewheeling with form, Oates is still driven by the same core content, probing the dark, unknowable heart, piercing the veil of appearance. She has started work on a new novel about Marilyn Monroe — someone who was, like John Reddy and his creator, an outsider. “I’ve been haunted by her image. I wanted to write about Norma Jean Baker, not Marilyn Monroe, the real person rather than the icon. In America,” she added, “we make our journeys from the outside to the inside.” Her new novel will end as Monroe’s life did — tragically.
But that’s not what Oates wanted for Broke Heart Blues. “I end it with the words, ‘we love you.’ It’s like saying we love America, and we love youth. It’s a valentine to that experience.”
Ellen Kanner has interviewed many authors for BookPage.