Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reading group: Dark Water by Joyce Carol Oates

I suggested this novella, a fictional parallel of the well-known incident of July 1969 when Senator Edward Kennedy, driving home from a party on Chappaquiddick Island, accidentally drove his car off a bridge into a tidal marsh creek, an accident from which Kennedy escaped, but in which his passenger, 28-year-old political campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne, died. Subsequent investigations failed to explain certain aspects of the incident, in particular the fact that having left the scene of the accident, Kennedy did not report it for nine hours, a fact that ultimately blighted Kennedy's political career. The novella updates the scenario to the late eighties - early nineties, replacing Kennedy with the physically and politically similar but unnamed Senator, and Mary Jo Kopechne with the slightly younger Elizabeth Anne 'Kelly' Kelleher, its incident set on the resonant date of July 4th.

Aptly for a book borrowing from an incident the outcome of which is well known, the novel adopts a structure based on hindsight, and its primary interest is not in what happens but in unpicking the sexual and political power structures that have led to a situation that is already in place. The book begins when the car is already in the water and Kelly alone and trapped in it, the Senator having swum free, and the central narrative is her struggle to free herself over the next few hours before the car finally fills with water. Meanwhile, however, chiefly (though not entirely) through Kelly's consciousness (via an intimate third person narration), we chart back through the hurried drive for the ferry in the dark on a disused back road, the party beforehand at which Kelly and the Senator met, Kelly's personal history of passionate political campaigning, a painful and potentially abusive sexual relationship and a childhood that has left her with low self-esteem, and the Senator's political background. Since Kelly is of course panicking in the car, all of this comes to us in a fragmented and repetitive form, the scenes lapping in repetitive waves like the water into the vehicle, each time they return bringing new insights, and as they become more jumbled paradoxically creating more meaningful connections. The drowning is thus both structurally and politically the central point from which a whole world of personal and political drama both spreads (like the ripples around the submerging car) and comes meaningfully together. However, there is still a strong narrative thrust due to the prose style which in my view brilliantly recreates the psychology of the trapped woman - breathless with minimal punctuation, obsessive with repetition and alarmed with pulsing rhythms (Ann would say later she found the book emotionally torturous, and found herself metaphorically lifting her head like Kelly to escape the rising water. I had said that if there was any problem with the breathless style, it was that I tended to read the book too quickly, with the feeling that I was missing things, but Ann said that she had found it all so agonising that she had to read it slowly, taking it in bits.)

When I had finished introducing the book to the group along these lines, Ann said she thought the book 'brilliant', and John and Mark agreed. Doug, who was unable to make the meeting, had written beforehand to say that he had found it a 'fabulous' book and didn't imagine there would be much discussion as he couldn't imagine anyone disagreeing. However, up until this point in the meeting Trevor, Jenny and Clare had been very quiet, and Trevor (who has tended to be positive about most books) now said that he was afraid he couldn't agree with us. He said that the book 'got on his nerves'. He said he got the point right from the start and the rest was just over-insistent repetition, and he couldn't stand the prose style, finding it insistent and bullying. He said it was an old story, too familiar to need to be told again, ie the story of a silly young girl having her head turned by an older man when she ought to know better. This led to a chorus of protest, that just because a story is old doesn't mean it can't be told again with a new perspective, that you don't have to be stupid to be seduced by charisma (that's one of the points: that modern politics is fatally based on charisma), that Kelly isn't stupid, she is actually clever and seriously academic and political, she just has low self-esteem (as Jenny pointed out), and, most importantly that the novel isn't just about that sexual scenario, but much more importantly about the last gasps of a moribund political system. This last point was made by Mark; the updating in the novel, he pointed out, reflects the fact that the political rot and the loss of the Democratic vision which had set in at the time of the real-life incident, and of which the whole incident is symbolic, was deeper and more evident by the time in which the novella is set and was published.

Ann and Mark pointed astutely to symbols of rot and breakdown in the novel: the swamp itself, 'a powerful brackish marshland odor, the odor of damp, and decay, and black earth, black water'; the fact that in the car headlights it looks like broken mirrors; the dead trees that Kelly worries might be dead from pollution, the dumped rubbish including the resonant image of a headless doll; the old disused road that the Senator takes instead of the new modern road (a route leading to disaster); the diminishing air bubble in the car (the last gasp); the fact that the car here is a Toyota (unlike Kennedy's Oldsmobile) and thus a symbol of the loss of American economic power. The seven-foot rushes in the marsh are described as being 'like human figures grotesque without faces', thus symbolising the lack of humanity in both the Senator's ultimate treatment of Kelly and of capitalist politics in general. Mark said in strong disagreement with Trevor that everything in the novel was symbolic or significant in some way, everything in it mattered and nothing was superfluous.

Jenny now said that her problem with the novella was that, unlike us, she didn't find it psychologically realistic: she found on the contrary a lack of urgency; she thought that Kelly would be panicking far more than she found the novel gave an impression of her doing. Also she didn't agree with me that the memories of the preceding and past events recurred with added insight or information, an observation that left us staggered and speechless. It seems to me that although certain moments are repeated and thus dwelt on, the memory-flashbacks do follow a narrative trajectory, showing the development of Kelly's involvement with the Senator at the party and her changing attitudes towards him (she is initially politically suspicious of him, but becomes charmed). Those moments that are obsessively dwelt on do to my mind re-emerge with added insight. The Senator first appears as attractive and attentive: 'big, gregarious ... playful' 'how tall he was, how physical his presence,' then with a hint of attractive vulnerability: 'And his grin wavered, just perceptibly. As if, for that moment, he was doubting himself: his manly power'; slowly however hindsight reveals him as domineering and selfish: 'The Senator was in the habit of making queries that were in fact statements'; 'that tongue thick enough to choke you' when he kisses Kelly; speaking to her 'as if speaking to a very young child,' and insulting her by telling her she's too young to understand. After the initial impression of vigour come hints of lack of wholesomeness: 'an exhausted middle-aged man beginning to go soft in the gut', his sports shirt 'damp with perspiration' and 'his seersucker trousers ... rumpled at the rear.' Then towards the end there is the self-regard revealed in the curiously repulsive image of the Senator eating 'ravenously, yet fastidiously, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin after every bite' and the resulting 'catsup on his napkin like smears of lipstick' with their inevitable connotations of blood. Towards half-way through the book the initial impression of generosity and gregariousness is cut across by this memory: 'Actually, the first thing the Senator did after greeting his hostess was to draw Ray Annick [his lawyer friend] off to confer with him, out of earshot of the others', and by the end of the novel two ominous memories have surfaced: Kelly's friend Buffy saying to her as she leaves with the Senator for the fateful car ride: ' "Don't forget, he voted to give aid to the Contras' ', and, as Kelly passes through the party kitchen, Ray Annick on the phone: 'speaking in a low, angry voice, the words asshole, fuck, fucking punctuating his customarily fastidious speech ... so unlike the genial smiling man ... courteously and sweetly attentive to Kelly Kelleher... His  eyes ... followed her as she passed ... as a cat's eyes follow movement with an instinctive impersonal predatory interest, yet as soon as she passed beyond his immediate field of vision he ceased to see her, ceased to register her existence'. This last of course prefigures the terrible end in which, in order to save the Senator from scandal and damage to his political career, Ray Annick will try to help the Senator to dissociate from the accident so that Kelly will be left in the car to die. However, none of this was enough to prevent Trevor and Jenny from experiencing the book as repetitive and static.

Ann said she wondered a bit about a fairly lengthy interjection towards the end of a treatise on capital punishment. This is the substance of the article that Kelly has written for the left-wing paper she works for, which discusses the role of the state in the matter (state-sanctioned or indeed -operated murder), and which at first the Senator gives the impression of having read, but hindsight makes clear he probably hadn't. John thought this was very important, not only as an illustration of Kelly's intelligence, acuity and left-wing passions, but as a comment on the fact that of course Kelly Kelleher is in effect murdered by the state, as was indeed the real-life Mary-Jo Kopechne.

Clare had been quiet for most of the meeting but she now said that like Trevor she hadn't liked the prose and as a result, like Trevor and to some extent Jenny she had been unable to engage with the book.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.
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