Book Review: A Bloodsmoor Romance, by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates has been turning out novels and short stories on a prolific basis for decades, frequently enough that she's been criticized for writing too quickly, while at the same time being highly regarded in literary circles.  Somehow, except for a few short stories, I'd never read any of her work until recently.

A Bloodsmoor Romance was first published in 1982 and is part of the "Gothic Quintet" (concluded in the recent The Accursed).  Judging from some of the reviews I've read, it has a reputation as a "black sheep" among Oates' work, with irregular and inconsistent plotting and narrative.

I can see where those opinions are coming from.  But I can also see, I think, what Oates was trying to accomplish with the book, not always successfully.  There were moments when I absolutely loved what I was reading, and also moments when I was definitely going "WTF?"  So my reaction is as mixed and inconsistent as the actual book is.  ABR is kind of a mess, but it's a "hot mess".

From The Urban Dictionary:
'Hot messes' are appealing for a variety of reasons, most notably because they're generally unexpected, capricious, & agonizingly provocative. Additionally, numerous contingent factors make duplication rare and continual repetition virtually impossible. 
No one set of guidelines can perpetually determine what distinguishes a "hot mess" from an above-average train wreck. Regardless of the circumstances, you know it when you see it; because they are typically conspicuous, and obviously they are always awesome.
Basics: In late 19th-century America (1879-1899), the Zinn sisters (Constance Philippa, Malvinia, Octavia, Samantha, and the adopted orphan Deidre) are the children of a gifted but irresponsible inventor who fortunately married into a wealthy Pennsylvania family, the Kiddemasters.  Though the backstories of John Quincy Zinn and Prudence Kiddemaster are told in flashbacks, the five sisters' stories are the main narrative. The initiating incident of the book is when Deidre, the youngest sister, is abducted by an unidentified balloonist in a sinister black balloon.

The stories of the five sisters are told by an unnamed female person of the same period and mores.  The Victorian repression and denial of sexuality is paramount in the narrator's voice, augmented by a cloying American fundamentalism.  Since much of the book deals with the sisters' actions in contradiction with those social codes and mores, there is much expression of disapproval from the narrator, couched in florid Victorian prose.

But, by God, it's great use of overblown prose.  Particularly in the early parts of the book, the rhythm and pace of the narrative is almost like poetry.  There were sections I wanted to read out loud.  I would have loved to hear this book done as an audiobook.

Also, there are parts of this book that are just plain goddamned funny.  "Goofball" isn't a term one usually finds applied to Oates, but for this one particular book she seems to have let her inner-goofball out at points.

[Spoilers below]

The things that are not made clear, the things that are left out, are some of the reasons why A Bloodsmoor Romance is so tantalizing, and so frustrating.  We never find out who the balloonist/kidnapper was, or why he abducted Deidre in the first place, or why he later left her, unconscious, on the grounds of a different estate where Deidre meets the Theosophist Madam Blavatsky.  (Other historical personages, including a naked Mark Twain, also make appearances in the book.)

The narrator's own stifled worldview makes suspect some of the other representations of events. Was the death of Octavia's husband really an accident, or murder? Some reviews of the book accept Constance Phillipa's transformation into the male Phillipe Fox as an actual physical event, complete with male genitalia.  My own interpretation of that idea's presentation, though, was that the narrator was so horrified by the very idea of a woman spending years dressing and masquerading as a man that she felt compelled to argue that Constance Phillipa actually became a man, because the alternative was just unacceptable.

(The purported gender-swap isn't the only element of the book that makes it shelveable as a work of fantasy or science fiction.  Much of the book deals with the Spiritualism movement in the America of the time -- sometimes treating it as charlatanism and sometimes as genuine -- and one of Mr. Zinn's inventions is an actual time-machine, of a sort.)

I would argue that the narrator of the book is actually the most important character.  Because it's her beliefs and prejudices, the weird and horrifying Victorian sexuality and prejudices, that make her a classic "unreliable narrator" (see also: Gene Wolfe).  Many of the events are presented as if she were physically present at those events, but it's clearly not possible for her to have been.  So we have to try and decide not only what's true, what's partially true, and what might be completely fabricated, but we have to try and puzzle out who the narrator of this book is, and why she'd writing it.

(There's one important character in the book who, reading between the lines, appears to have had a delusional break from reality at one point.   I think it's possible to argue it's that same character who writes A Bloodsmoor Romance after suffering a similar break from reality, much later in life.)

In short, this book was, umm, "interesting".  The mileage you place on "interesting" may vary.

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