The Motel Life

Toward the end of her essay (sub. req’d) in the New York Review of Books on two of Joyce Carol Oates recent works of fiction—the novel Little Bird of Heaven and the story collection Dear HusbandCaroline Fraser cracks a joke. Describing a scene in Little Bird in which an adolescent girl is kidnapped by her father and taken to a Days Inn where a bloody standoff ensues, Fraser quips: “how that chain must love Joyce Carol Oates.”

Actually, as far as the miseries connected to rented rooms go, Oates isn’t especially brand-loyal. When it comes to imagining the appropriate backdrop for somebody’s emotional instability, any (to pick one of Oates’ favorite adjectives in this context) shabby inn will do. In her story “Mrs. Halifax and Rickie Swann: A Ballad” (in her 2004 collection, I Am No One You Know), a woman carries on an affair with a 15-year-old boy, and together they go on the Grand Tour of New Jersey motels and fast-food joints:

Rarely the same motel twice. Days Inn, Bide-a-Wee, Econo-Lodge, Sleep E Hollow, Holiday Inn (Rahway, Metuchen), Travellers Inn, Best Western. Mrs. Halifax and her teenaged son (Brian/Jason/Troy/Mark). Only Mrs. Halifax entered the hotel lobbies, but her adolescent son was sometimes glimpsed in the parking lot, or in the video arcade, or, if there was an indoor heated pool, there. Once they were safe inside their cozy locked room they luxuriated in their lovemaking, Jacuzzi bathing, take-out McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Chinese and Italian food, giant Pepsis (for Rickie) and six-packs of beer (for Mrs. Halifax).

The exotic dancer/serial killer in her 1999 Rosamond Smith novel Starr Bright Will Be With You Soon stifles her resentment of the place a man has taken her in the novel’s early pages:

If “Starr Bright” was bitterly disappointed in the Paradise Motel, in Sparks, Nevada, having envisioned a first-rate casino hotel in Reno for the night, smelling beforehand the insecticide-odor of the shabby room, she gave not the slightest clue. She was not that kind of girl.

But Days Inn does seem to come in as a handy metaphor for rootlessness and despair. The alcoholic hero of her 1994 novel, What I Lived For, is unsettled when he checks in:

Waking in a shabby Days Inn at exit 14 of I-190 in a no-man’s-land of fast-food restaurants, gas stations, motels, discount outlets approximately six miles north of the Union City limits where, the night before, that’s to say in the early hours of this morning, Corky’d taken a room for a rock-bottom twenty-nine dollars plus tax. Figuring no one would look for him in such a dump. No one who knew him.

Had to do it. Why?—don’t ask. Just a premonition. Couldn’t go home. That big echoing house, never really his. A mausoleum.

The Days Inn passage in Little Bird of Heaven gets at the fictional appeal of such places for Oates—they’re meaningful for the reader precisely because they represent meaninglessness for the people who are forced to stay there:

We were in a first-floor room at the far end of a two-storey stucco building of just discernible shabbiness and melancholy; something in the very jauntiness of the sign Days Inn Vacancies exuded this air of shabbiness and melancholy. In books there is said to be meaning, in our English class our teacher was reading poems by Robert Frost to us and it was astonishing to me, and a little scary, how the words fo a poem has such meaning, but in actual life, in places like the Days Inn motel there is not much meaning, it is just something that is.

I haven’t read enough of Oates’ books to know if occupying a motel room is a guarantee of a sad, bloody end, though it seems a relatively safe bet. Maybe there’s a kind of social commentary built into Oates’ interest in corpses in motel rooms. In ordinary homes, murder victims will likely first be found by a friend of family member; in a hotel the first witness may be a housekeeper or staffer—somebody who’s an outsider to the story in the same way we are as readers. A death in a home devastates loved ones; a death in a Days Inn announces itself to the wider world. In a home, a death can be private; in a hotel, we all have to look. Oates hints at that distinction in her 2007 novel, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, in which the protagonist, Rebecca, works as a chambermaid in a hotel where suicides and murders have occurred:

Suicide in hotel rooms was not uncommon, but murder was very rare. Rebecca had never heard of anyone killing a child in any hotel.

Why do they do it, why check into a hotel, Rebecca had asked someone, possibly Hrube himself at a time when they must’ve been on reasonably good terms, and Hrube had shrugged saying, “To fuck the rest of us up, why else d’you think?”

Excellent Typesetting

Yes, it does seem like Joyce Carol Oates is legally required to have something published in the Atlantic‘s annual fiction issue. But that doesn’t mean her curious essay, “I Am Sorry to Inform You,” didn’t merit inclusion. In the piece, presumably an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, she addresses the death of her first husband, Raymond Smith, in 2008, though it might be more precise to say that the story is about how she evades it. While she bemoans the writers who robotically send submissions to the Ontario Review even after Smith’s death prompted its shuttering, she candidly describes her own robot-like behavior—her urge to see her husband’s death as a frustrating interruption and not a source of anguish. But eventually that grief emerges:

Ray would also, could he return from the dead, be concerned about the May issue of the magazine. The first thing he would say, in an urgent voice, is Did you send the rest of the copy to Doug? What about the cover art which I didn’t finish—can you prepare it and send it to him by overnight delivery?

(Doug Hagley is Ray’s excellent typesetter, in Marquette, Michigan.)

I may as well admit it—if Ray could miraculously return from the dead, within a day or two—within a few hours—he would be working again on Ontario Review.

He was working in his hospital bed, on the very last day of his life. He’d be terribly concerned now, that the publication date of the May issue will be delayed…

I am trying. Honey, I am trying!

That last line is where the dam starts to break, but the parenthetical before it may be the most heartbreaking line in the whole piece. Her husband is on his deathbed, so what better time is there to recall that there is an excellent typesetter located in Marquette, Michigan, with whom they work? It encapsulates just how deeply her personal life has collided with her work, which she has spent her career diligently keeping separate. “I never discuss anything personal about myself, or even my writing,” she writes. “[M]y own ‘self’ is never a factor in my teaching, still less my career; I like to think that most of my students haven’t read my writing.”

Links: The Hoover Institution

“[Joyce Carol Oates] says she often has to bribe herself to write — dangling an hour or two of gardening as her reward — and gets her best ideas while vacuuming.”

C-SPAN’s new online video library is stuffed full of literary material from the past 20-odd years, including awards programs, conferences, readings and more. Among the videos is a 2004 PEN American Center event featuring Don DeLillo, Edward P. Jones, Francine Prose, and Russell Banks.

Jonathan Lethem, Chris Abani, and Edie Meidav are the three finalists for the teaching position at Pomona College once held by David Foster Wallace.

On the hundredth anniversary of Mark Twain‘s death, let us remember that he was a pipe aficionado, an early baseball enthusiast, a tourist magnet.

On the first anniversary of John Updike‘s death, let us remember that not everybody is impressed with his work. “He’s a fine realist,” says Yale professor Amy Hungerford. “But he doesn’t push the envelope of the novel. He is simply not on the vanguard of what fiction has to say.”

James Mulholland, who along with a few of his students answered some of my questions about his 9/11 novel course last year, defends the honor of graduate studies in the humanities: “[W]e must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too.”

Kurt Vonnegut draws a few charts to explain how narrative works.

The next F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference will honor Alice McDermott.

On the evidence of this assortment of photographs, you’re not required to be a smoker to be a Hero of American Literature, but it helps.

Links: Good Enough for Government Work

I recently finished Adam Haslett‘s novel on financial malfeasance and the definition of good citizenship, Union Atlantic. More soon, but for now suffice to say it’s a rare case of a novel I wished were longer. Turns out Haslett cut out plenty.

Parents of students at a high school in Santa Rosa, California, recently attempted to pull T.C. Boyle‘s The Tortilla Curtain from its reading list. Boyle’s response: “I do take it as a badge of honor…. It’s preposterous. Look at what kids are exposed to daily in the pure crap on TV or at the movies or rock and roll—it’s a free country. This is art. How many rape scenes do you suppose the average child has seen watching TV in his life?”

A Harvard Crimson columnist reads the first section of Philip Roth‘s American Pastoral and detects a “heavy fog of exhausted and demoralized irony,” whatever that is. Failing to complete the novel doesn’t prevent the writer from drawing comparisons to The Road. Now, committing acts of comparative literature can be great fun, but it works a lot better when you’ve actually finished both books. I had assumed this was taught at Harvard.

Joyce Carol Oates recalls growing up in Lockport, New York—a hometown that, she notes, she shares with Timothy McVeigh. Her interest in creepy violence in both fiction and nonfiction being well-documented, it makes a certain sense that she’d be tapped as a source for a story on Amy Bishop.

Tobias Wolff inspires a tattoo.

Ole Miss is trying to come up with a new mascot. Why not William Faulkner?

A documentary on David Goodis is now available on DVD. The trailer:

The BBC’s American Archive

Starting tomorrow, BBC’s Radio 4 will broadcast Capturing America, a series hosted by Mark Lawson on “how American writing became the literary superpower of the 20th century.” Interviews with the usual suspects—Updike, Roth, Vonnegut, Oates—provide the backbone of the series, with Dave Eggers and Patricia Cornwell being the closest things to surprise choices. But Lawson is less interested in finding outliers than in performing a summing-up of popular literary tastes after the war, to figure out why Updike mattered so much to readers in the 70s and 80s that landed on the cover of Time twice. More personally, he was also interested in meeting the writers he got a charge out of decades ago. As he writes in a stemwinder in the Guardian on his experience working on the series:

One of the major pleasures of my long investigation of American writing was meeting writers who have been heroes since I read as a teenager the Penguins and Picadors which – now yellowed and buckled – became research material 30 years later. Time and again, the jacket photographs miraculously came to life.

Norman Mailer, standing in greeting at the top of his tall house in Brooklyn Heights, with its view to the Statue of Liberty, and growling, in a perfect parody of his reputation for obsession with masculinity: “You’re a big man. Do you box? You should box.” Philip Roth skittish and wickedly jokey as the technical preparations were made, sombre and professorial as soon as the interviews began. Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most vociferous writers in literary history (around 150 publications, including all pseudonyms and genres), so softly spoken in a Princeton University office that she could hardly be heard over the purr of the heating. Toni Morrison, giving a magisterial reading and analysis of America on the brink of electing Obama. John Updike, arriving at a snowy Boston hotel, wearing a black knitted cap and clutching a Dunkin Donuts cup of decaf coffee.

All the interviews Lawson conducted are available on the Radio 4 Web site. Most are at least a few years old, but some were conducted just months ago, including a conversation with Joyce Carol Oates about how she “more or less collapsed” after the death of her husband in 2008, and how her writing habits have changed since then:

I have only a fraction of my energy. I’m not really the same person anymore. I don’t write under a pseudonym any longer because it’s all I can do to write under my own name. I had so much energy in those days that I could write another novel in, like, three months, and then write my own novel under my own name. Now, I haven’t planned a novel since Little Bird of Heaven. I don’t have the psychological strength or concentration. But I do work.

Links: Crisis Mode

Following this week’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, the main spokesperson for the nation from the world of American literary fiction has been Edwidge Danticat, who’s spoken to the Wall Street Journal about the catastrophe and provided the paper with a brief primer on Haitian culture. A little surprisingly, I’d heard nothing from fiction writer Ben Fountain, who famously visited the country more than 30 times while researching his excellent short-story collection, Brief Conversations With Che Guevara. But Texas Lawyer caught up with him:

I expect that recovery will be long, difficult, expensive and complex. It may well be that the country never recovers in this generation. On the other hand, I think there’s a possibility, however hard it may be to focus on at this point, that the earthquake provides the impetus for a sustained, concerted and well-planned effort by the international community to help Haiti overcome its problems. In any event, Haiti certainly won’t be the same country that it was on Jan. 10.

My new favorite litblog: Years of BASS, in which a Virginia researcher makes his way through the Best American Short Story series.

Films inspired by the films described in David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest will screen soon at Columbia University.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s very clear to me now—as I’d always supposed—that we can’t really choose what we write about in any passionate way: the material chooses us.”

Just because Twitter forces you to be concise doesn’t mean it’s going to make you an Ernest Hemingway.

Jill McCorkle goes off-Broadway.

Christopher Hitchens on Gore Vidal going off the rails.

Jaws meets Deliverance, with bears“—the elevator pitch an author needs to catch a publisher’s attention grows ever shorter.

On a related note, here’s Charles Bock on pursuing fiction writing as a career: “A teacher of mine once told me that as a writer you’ll be humiliated, then you’ll be humiliated again, and when you think you can’t be humiliated any more, they’ll find new ways to humiliate you.”

Bad Bet

Narrative magazine’s Web site has an essay by Joyce Carol Oates on her literary mentors—a lengthy piece, considering her argument is that she’s had few such people in her life. (Even her first husband, Raymond Smith, read almost none of her fiction.) She’s had childhood guides, yes, like her grandmother; and she’s had sparring partners like John Gardner, with whom she had extended debates in the 70s about whether writing fiction is or should be moral. But people who guided her writing and career with a mind to support and improve it? Nary a one—and though she doesn’t quite come out and say it, such is the fate of many writers who grow up in hardscrabble communities, where literary support systems are hard to come by. You’re not sui generis because you’re arrogant; you’re that way because there’s nobody around to set a path for you.

To that end Oates gets in an interesting story about her relationship with Donald Barthelme, who appears in this anecdote to eagerly flay himself over sales. The suggestion being that this is what you get when you care too much about what others think:

No sooner had my husband and I been welcomed into the Barthelmes’ brownstone apartment—no sooner had I congratulated Don on what I’d believed to be the very positive reviews and bestseller status of his new book of stories, Amateurs —than he corrected me with a sneering smile, informing me that Amateurs wasn’t a bestseller, and that no book of his had ever been a bestseller; his book sales were “nothing like” mine; if I doubted this, we could make a bet—for $100—and check the facts. Quickly I backed down, I declined the bet—no doubt in my usual embarrassed and conciliatory way, hoping to change the subject.

But Don wasn’t in the mood to change the subject just yet. To everyone’s embarrassment—Ray’s, mine, his wife’s—Don picked up a phone receiver, dialed a number, and handed the receiver to me with the request to speak to his editor—he’d called Roger Straus at Farrar, Straus & Giroux—and ask if in fact Donald Barthelme had ever had a bestseller; and so, trying to fall in with the joke, which seemed to me to have gone a little further than necessary, I asked Roger Straus—whom I didn’t know, had scarcely heard of at this time in my life—if Don had ever had a bestseller, and was told no, he had not.

Plaintively I asked, “He hasn’t? Not ever? I thought . . .”

The individual at the other end of the line, whom I would meet years later, the legendary Roger Straus of one of the most distinguished publishing firms in New York, said coolly, “No. He has not. Put Don on the phone, please, I want to talk to him.”

(h/t Edan Lepucki)