Review: You Must Remember This by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates, a recent discovery of mine, refuses to give in to those who would have us think the 1950s America were a placid, contented decade of plenty for everyone. In truth they were fraught with perils, economic and social, and under the surface of post-war calm, the decade boiled with tensions that underlay the fears of the American psyche. In these pages, behind the tale of an incestuous love story of a teenage niece and her half-uncle, a boxer who might merit a title shot, is the Red Scare, the fear of the bomb, the social intolerance of McCarthyism, and the terror of the consequences of straying from the norms the American culture had set.

Joyce Carol Oates’ mastery of language is at the height of it’s power in You Must Remember This. I had to stop and seep in some of her truly inspirational prose, told in such a purposeful, matter-of-fact style, just to remind myself what a gifted writer can accomplish. This is a sometimes grey-clouded and bountifully absorbing novel depicting the human sexual condition under the colorless factory-lined skies of her native Western New York. I couldn’t immediately recall another long novel bringing the characters to such full-fledged living form as Ms. Oates does here.

From what magic does she compose the radiating brilliance, sensitivity and brutishness, innocence and shrewdness of the character Felix, an ex-boxer who spends his life gallantly seeking the happiness deprived in childhood. It would seem only a Boxing expert could delve into the mind striking constant chords of revelation and truths and opening the reader’s mind to the insights of boxing. Or the character of Enid, a troubled, too deeply sensitive high-schooler whose mysterious mind and pre-maturity may reflect Ms. Oates’ own childhood genius. These pages turn as fast as a high charged suspense novel, its low-key slowly climaxing appreciation of the human condition result in an intimate bond with the characters and human nature itself.

I must emphasize, though, that the occasional flashes of Oates trademark — her brilliant capture of human undercurrents rising to the surface, written so ethereally but grippingly (Felix picking Enid up during high school lunch; the boxing/maiming passages; Warren’s dissolving himself into Miriam; yes, that first sexual encounter between Felix and Enid; and a good dozen others) — at times unfortunately get lost in this basically tedious, tirelessly prolix novel.

My favorite scene in this book, and also its most frustrating, has to be when the father of the family at the heart of this energetic, moody novel, is taken into custody and ruthlessly interrogated by governmental agents, after he is reported for possible “Red sympathies.” The cause of this detention? The man had opened an atlas at his store to show an ignorant, argumentative “true blue red-blooded patriotic American” that China, against which the US was at war in Korea at that time, was geographically larger than the United States.

In the ’50’s, that could be all it took to ruin someone’s life.

You Must Remember This is also the tale of a secret sexual affair between a teenage girl and her own father’s half-brother. It begins with one of the most compelling and addicting ten pages in modern literature, as the girl undertakes a suicide attempt in her family’s presence, in the dead of night. This action funnels any worthy reader in for at least the next hundred pages, at which point it becomes too late to turn back: Oates has already woven her spell.

I feared the last handful of pages, so concerned was I that something tragic would happen to these tender, fragile characters. Though I was more than once frustrated to read the countless tediously long descriptions, some bold others suggestive of this part of New York State where factory-lined horizons, still-water lakes and gaseous colors in the sky can be beautiful. I must say I found the title and conclusion of the book a bit vague but I trust Ms. Oates discetion and understanding that I will be remembering this for quite some time.

You Must Remember This does not set out to be all things to all readers, but in its tale of tragic love, political intimidation and nuclear fears infiltrating the country’s subconscious: it is very nearly that.

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