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Book Review : Flight From Squalor Into a Rage for Refinement

February 18, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Marya by Joyce Carol Oates (Dutton: $16.95)

All of us--most of us?--believe that we are the result of an accident at birth. Surely we, with our sensibilities, our educations, our appreciations of sunsets, our youthful, lithe limbs, our ability to dance, our sweetness, cannot have been born from those two dolts who live in the back bedroom of the house--that woman who drifts about the kitchen making (bad) meals; that man who comes home nightly from his (boring) job and snoozes. Then, when we grow up and have children of our own, we catch those disdainful sideways glances and realize, to our anguish, that if we once had the promise of youth, the glitter of ambition, we have it no longer and in our children's eyes are no more than lamb chops left lying out in the sun.

This is the signature drama of American upward mobility. Rough peasants came from Europe to this fresh green earth, to better themselves. American children, by the very system of things, leave their parents behind. How easy to designate our parents, our grandparents, as poor and uneducated; as savages , and to take our own, our "civilized" selves, as far away as possible from these frightening, grunting creatures--not our parents at all, but in psychological terms, our ids.

Impossible to Escape

It's terribly American to fly into excesses of refinement; it's a theme explored by Emerson, Hawthorne, and in this century, most notably by Joyce Carol Oates. Because, of course, it's impossible to separate good from evil, impossible to escape our natures--the bloody, the fleshly, the disgusting, the distasteful parts of our own "souls."

So! Once again, as she has in "Wonderland" and many other tales, Oates creates a world of squalor. Marya (the Slovak variant of Mary or Maria) is one of three children born into a depressed family in a factory town somewhere in the Northeast. Her brothers are just little and scummy. Her father has friends who come over and drink and make noise; often Marya goes out to the cab of her dad's truck to get a little sleep.

Her father's in the union, and there's a strike going on. Marya's mother is a slattern; she leaves the buttons of her sweater undone so that white and drooping flesh is revealed. She can't bear to wash her hair, she has a ferocious temper, melancholy moods and, mostly, she's a drunk. Many times she takes Marya into bed with her and assures her, brokenly, drunkenly, that the two of them are exactly alike.

Struck by Disaster

Then--what else might you expect in a Joyce Carol Oates novel?--Marya's father is beaten to death by thugs, and Marya's mother, who is just like the little girl, abandons her children, leaving them to the rigid, lower-class, savage-in-its-own-way family of her father, Marya's uncle and aunt.

To grow up poor, unattractive, unloved, to know nothing, really, about your youth, except that you want to get away from it--that is what "Marya" is about. Again, as in such films as "Educating Rita" and such popular fiction as Maeve Binchy's "Echoes," the only way out is-- has to be--through education.

Marya's learning process goes forward, with mentors, against the loud scorn of her adoptive family. The agony of Marya is that she knows not where she belongs. She is the painted bird, the ugly duckling, and she battles this aching sense of loneliness in the only way she knows--with tantrums, with ferocity; those very traits she seeks to purge from herself.

First it's a handsome, ailing priest, who charms her, and uses her as an unpaid secretary. Then, when Marya succeeds in scholarshipping herself to college, she charms and is charmed by a leggy blonde, a rich girl who is everything Marya can never be--except that her mind is underdeveloped and "brand X." Then, what does a beautiful, brilliant graduate student do if she's a girl? Find a married professor and sleep her way into more learning. . . .

Standing in Bare Feet

All this time Marya is still poor, feverish, starving, a thief, an outlaw. "A writer's authentic self, she thought, lay in his writing and not in his life; it was the landscape of the imagination that endured, that was really real. Mere life was the husk, the actor's performance, negligible in the long run. . . . Standing in bare feet, shivering, her head fairly ringing with fatigue and her eyes filling with tears, she thought her happiness almost too exquisite to be borne."

But is life meant to be exquisite? Certainly Oates, in her past work, has not thought so. It's inevitable that Marya--in the course of her education in life-as-a-human-being--falls in love, not with that earlier academician, but with a strong and exciting intellectual. And she learns--learns what it is to be human. The perspicacious reader will realize that in order to become fully human, there is one more, transcendentally important link that she must make before she can complete this process.

Let me just say this. If this review sounds predictable, it is in some measure because the book, the story, sometimes even the writing itself, is predictable. It's a sad thing when you can figure out the end of a novel by Page 100, especially one by a writer of this repute, wisdom and stature.

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