Author: Joyce Carol Oates, 2008.
Genre: Contemporary Fiction. Literary. Satire.
Other Details:Trade Paperback. 562 pages.
Dysfunctional families are all alike. Ditto 'survivors'.
So opens the narrative of nineteen-year old Skyler Rampike, whose six-year old sister Bliss, an ice skating prodigy, had been murdered in a sensational case ten years previously. It proposes to be a personal document not intended as a chronological account of events but one that "will follow a pathway of free association organised by an unswerving (if undetectable) interior logic: unliterary, unpretentious, disarmingly crude-amateur, guilt-ridden, appropriate to the "survivor" who abandoned his six-year old sister to her "fate" sometime in the "wee hours" of January 29, 1997, in our home in Fair Hills, New Jersey."
It is a multi-layered, complex novel that serves as an eulogy to his sister and to Skyler's own lost childhood, his investigation into the murder and its aftermath as well as a sharply observed satire/expose on aspects of modern society. It is without doubt a dark novel with themes of child murder, mental illness, bad parenting, social climbing, the hunger for fame and fortune, and the power of the tabloid media.
Oates opens with an Author's Note/Disclaimer stating that this novel has "its genesis in a notorious American true-crime mystery of the late twentieth century" and goes on to say that it is a work of imagination and "lays no claim to representing actual persons, places or historical events." The case in question is the unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsey. I had heard of the case but was unfamiliar with the details so was not aware of how controversial the novel was when it was selected as the April book for one of my reading groups.
The New York Times described the novel as "a fictionalized version of the JonBenet Ramsey story, so thinly veiled as to risk its own kind of indecency". Indeed, aside from discussing the book's content and how it works as a satire on aspects of American society, we discussed at what point (if ever) true crime cases such as the Ramsey murder or the closer-to-home McCann abduction should receive this kind of treatment.
As to the novel itself, I found it complicated and at times demanding but very worthwhile and thought-provoking. Although exploring very different themes, it reminded me some of the sharply observed social satire of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. Oates' writing appears to be almost effortless as she combines tragedy and comedy in an unconventional style that incorporates a number of post-modernist literary devices. It may be too soon to call this extraordinary novel a modern classic, but it has all the hallmarks of becoming one in terms of its content and execution. I am quite certain that I will read more of Oates writings after this positive experience.