I've read very little of Joyce Carol Oates's work, but there is something haunting about the stories she tells. "They All Just Went Away", collected in The Best American Essays of the Century and edited by Oates has that same eerie quality to it even though (maybe especially so) she is writing from experience. In the biographical section of the collection she is quoted as saying "As I am not drawn to art that makes me feel good, comfortable, or at ease, so I am not drawn to essays that 'smile', except in the context of larger, more complex ambitions." Even though I've not read much by her, this doesn't surprise me in the least. Her writing isn't comfortable, and that's not a criticism, just an observation.
"I must have been a lonely child. Until the age of twelve or thirteen, my most intense, happiest hours were spent tramping desolate fields, woods, and creek banks near my family's farmhouse in Millersport, New York. No one knew where I went. My father, working most of the day at Harrison's, a division of General Motors in Lockport, and at other times preoccupied, would not have asked; if my mother asked, I might have answered in a way that would deflect curiosity. I was an articulate, verbal child. Yet I could not have explained what drew me to the abandoned houses, barns, silos, corncribs. A hike of miles through fields of spiky grass, across outcroppings of shale as steeply angled as stairs, was a lark if the reward was an empty house."
In her essay Oates notes the difference between a house and a home--the house contains the home and may remain long after it's been abandoned by those living in it, "for only when there is life can there be a home", but when empty it reverts back to simply being a home.
"Where a house has been abandoned--unworthy of being sold to new tenants, very likely seized by the county for default on taxes and the property held in escrow--you can be sure there has been a sad story. There have been devastated lives. Lives to be spoken of pityingly. How they went wrong. Why did she marry him, why did she stay with him? Just desperate people. Ignorant. Poor white trash. Runs in the family. A wrong turn."
Joyce Carol Oates grew up in a happy, close-knit family on a farm whose principle crop was Bartlett pears. But there is always that threat of happiness being only temporary. "For the abandoned house contained the future of any house." One in particular, the Weidel's house, loomed close by over all the others. Mr Weidel was a violent drunk who "did things to his daughters." Of the six children there was something not quite right with the two daughters. The Weidels were a dysfunctional family doomed to scatter to the wind someday, and after a fire that devastated the house, scatter they did. Mrs Weidel, despite being roughed up by her husband with regularity, stuck by him tenaciously and wouldn't hear of accusations being made about her husband and the fire.
"For so many years the Weidel house remained standing. There was something defiant about it, like someone who has been mortally wounded but will not die."
This abandoned house and its former inhabitants seems to stand as a metaphor for who we are or what we're capable of. Joyce Carol Oates isn't an author I will pretend to understand, but she asks difficult questions, or at least meets her reader full face on and with images and ideas, uncomfortable they may be, that demand attention. This essay with a house in such a sorry state of affairs and a family so violent and broken reminds me of the stories I've read by her and her ability to completely unsettle her reader. Some of these same motifs, fears she has will show up in her stories. Joyce Carol Oates is such an interesting author, but one I think I can only take in small doses--she certainly knows how to through you off balance.