Genre: Literary Gothic
Publisher: Vanguard Press
Pub. Year: 1964
It was such a joy to find Joyce Carol Oates’ debut novel, “With Shuddering Fall.” She is an all-time favorite author of mine. Written in 1964, when the author was in her mid-twenties, the novel does not disappoint. In a previous review of “Night-Gaunts,” 2018, I wrote that a recurring theme in her work is the abuse of women, as portrayed in “Do With Me What You Will,” 1973, “We Were the Mulvaneys,” 2002, “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” 2007, “Blonde: A Novel, 2009,” “The Sacrifice”, 2016. I have read them all. They are flawless. (I admit that when I read her memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” 2011, I was surprised to see how very ordinary her own marriage was). So I wasn’t overly surprised to read that she began her career on a theme that we have come to associate with this author— a dark tale of two lovers entwined in sexual chaos.
On Oct. 25, 1964, the NY Times reviewed “Shuddering” and wrote of the female protagonist, “Karen Herz at 17 is fragilely beautiful, and, as she herself recognizes, a little “queer in the head.” Her impulses are ungovernable; her whims must be carried to the limit.” Her being queer in the head actually reads as if she may be autistic. If she is autistic, I did wonder if Karen embraces a twisted love affair as a means to feel. I have no idea if that is how Oates meant for her character to present, but that is my take on Karen. Her born angry 30-year-old racecar driving lover is Shar. He appears to have a death wish. There is little doubt that his violent occupation symbolizes their relationship. Karen marries Shar and things go from bad to worse. Remember the Billie Holliday song “My Man?” “My life is just despair, but I don’t care, He beats me, too, what can I do?” Well, that can be Karen singing about her man Shar. But then again, Shar’s feelings about Karen are just as bizarre. He literally cannot live with her (he never was a one-woman kind of guy) or without her (he stays since he is obsessed that he cannot bring her to sexual orgasm). There is a constant struggle of brutality and indifference between them.
Although the story may revolve around sex her prose is never porn-like. The Times reviewer also wrote, “This material is not as garish as it sounds _because of the clarity, grace, and intelligence of the writing.” For Oates to pull this off at such a tender age is nothing short of amazing. This does not mean “Shuddering” is flawless. The story can wander off at certain times with unneeded subplots, which detract from the real tale. She was still in the process of learning her craft.
So why does Oates’ unwavering theme on the abuse of women keep working for her? I believe it is her willingness to unabashedly dive into the darkest cavity of the human psyche. And let’s face it—such tales are fascinating to read. She always seems to ask the question just what is insanity? Aren’t we all just a little scared to find bits of ourselves in her unstable characters? You might cringe, but Oates has a unique voice and is one hell of a storyteller.
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