• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

My Life as a Rat: Joyce Carol Oates explores the tribalism of the USA

Joyce Carol Oates focuses squarely on the big issues: race, gender, inequality and politics. Photo/Dustin Cohen/Supplied

Joyce Carol Oates’ latest is an intense story of a girl disowned by her family in the wake of a racist murder.

Interviewed by the Guardian recently, Joyce Carol Oates recalled being told that female writers should stick to “domestic life, family life, childbirth, raising children, marriages, romance”. In her essay “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?”, she describes regularly encountering the question as a reproach. One reviewer urged her to leave “the big social novel” to Norman Mailer. During her long, award-winning, crazily prolific career, she has firmly rejected that limiting advice, focusing squarely on the big issues: race, gender, inequality and politics.

But it is possible to have it both ways. In her new novel, Oates has found a way to zero in on domestic life without abandoning her focus on wider social concerns. My Life as a Rat is the story of a young girl who desperately wants to keep family secrets and to lie out of loyalty, but is ultimately forced to betray her brothers. She finds herself permanently cast out as a “rat”, rejected for “going outside the family”.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Discussing the novel, Oates traced her line of reference, from family to society to state, with current events clearly in mind: “There must be civil and moral laws higher than the tribalism of the family, the clan and the political party. Civilisation collapses when we don’t apply justice unilaterally. The US is undergoing this sort of slow collapse of ethics and civil law under the Trump administration, which prosecutes and pardons indiscriminately, depending on political loyalties.”

Oates’ portrayal of the family unit as a microcosm of society immediately caught my eye: my 2018 novel, Mazarine, also written in response to the Trump phenomenon, focuses on the idea of the family as a regime, its power structure governed by the dynamics of a repressive state.

Families are formative; we begin as helpless captives of our parents, and our personalities are shaped by the early experiences they provide. The family not only leaves its mark, but also exerts an extraordinarily powerful hold, and to break from it requires mental strength.

The intensity of these psychological forces makes Oates’ drama of a disowned child compelling. As she puts it: “We are all bound to our families and it is a sort of fairy-tale nightmare if one might be disowned or rejected.”

The “rat” of her story is Violet Rue, a 12-year-old who loves her family and is particularly close to her father. Drunk-driving one night, her two older brothers pass a black high school student cycling home. They attack him with a baseball bat, injuring him so badly that he dies. After seeing the brothers hiding evidence, Violet keeps the secret as best she can, until their behaviour becomes so threatening that she has to confess.

Her nightmare begins: instead of receiving love and protection from her parents, she becomes the target of their loathing. The murder polarises the community, with African Americans outraged and white families calling the boys’ prosecution “racism against whites”. Violet is exiled and begins a new life as an orphan, her vulnerability exposing her to further abuse. She drifts through horrifying experiences with violent men, the most gothic of which involves a white supremacist math teacher – a fan of eugenics who likes to drug and rape young girls.

Oates isn’t a careful stylist; the prose is as scrappy and disjointed as Violet’s fractured thoughts, but she maintains an intensity that carries the narrative along. This is a story of cruelty, repression, loss and hope by a writer engaged on all levels, from the minute detail of human interactions to the largest issues of the day.

MY LIFE AS A RAT, by Joyce Carol Oates (4th Estate, $35)

This article was first published in the July 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.