Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Joyce Carol Oates' possibly racist The Sacrifice

It's not very often that I'm as baffled by a novel as I was by this new one from the prolific and universally applauded American novelist Joyce Carol Oates.

It's a fictionalised treatment of the notorious Tawana Brawley case in New York in 1987. Brawley was a 15 year old African-American girl who claimed that she'd been kidnapped and frequently raped over a four day period by five or six white men some of whom were police. She was found lying beaten, smeared with feces, and with racist sentiments scribbled in charcoal on her body. The police were suspicious from the start and the culprits were never identified or charged. The case became a national media obsession, exploited as it was by black civil rights activists like Al Sharpton. 

A Grand Jury, however, eventually concluded that Brawley had completely fabricated the incident, in league with her mother, for unclear reasons.

Oates relocates the drama to New Jersey to add a historical and presumably suggestive link to the race riots that took place in inner city Newark twenty years earlier, and that were ended by forceful and overwhelmingly violent police and National Guard action.

Via a tapestry of various characters' voices involved in the case (all with new fictional names - Brawley becomes Sybilla Frye) she attempts to capture the social and cultural dynamics, not just of this particular case, but of race relations in America generally. Her ear for the local argot is fine-tuned. She pins the patois with precision, and the characters are brilliantly drawn. 

Al Sharpton becomes Marus Mudrick. Although a powerful orator and charismatic preacher with a deeply resonant voice, he epitomises hubris and hypocrisy. He's a liar, a defamer, a former thief, and a vain, self-serving opportunist. Oates lays it on thick.

I started to realise that she may well have had a questionable agenda. The reader is initially led to be sympathetic to the family, friends and associates of the local, downtrodden, abused African-American community. But as the cracks in the rape story begin to emerge Oates subverts that sympathy. 

She's turning out to be consistently anti-black. The characters are seemingly all frauds, scammers, thieves, crims, drunks, bashers, druggies, looters, rapists, and moochers. Victims of oppression perhaps, but bad all round.

Given there are no significant white characters in the book, only cops in the background (the fingered young white cop who Frye 'identifies', who subsequently commits suicide, was a totally 'good person'), I became suspicious I was being conned.

This is either a book that indicts the African-American urban sub-culture, in fact rather viciously, or I have totally misread it. It's exquisite writing, it's wonderfully descriptive of a social and economic underbelly, but I'm sure by now I'm being subjected to a creeping racism and it's becoming more and more obvious. There are no redeeming features of the black community in this perverse urban story.

The ending is a monumental cop out. It refuses to allow the plot to unravel the lies and let justice be done, as was the case in the real Brawley story. The logic is not allowed to unfold. 

It just ends with the sad and unlovely story of Sybilla's step-father Anis Shutt, a loser if ever there was one. (Is there supposed to be something horribly suggestive in that name?). He's a drunk and his anger is uncontrollable. His wives and daughters suffer continual beatings. His sole substantial aim in life is to shoot and kill a white cop in revenge for a police killing of his young son years earlier.

Oates is either affirming an unlovely picture of irredeemable, rightly condemned, African-American manhood, or articulating a justification for the deeply entrenched anger and dysfunction that grips the black community generally. I suspect the former.

She makes no effort to explore the political or economic dimensions of the race issue. There is no hint of a political solution. No hint of an Obama presidency, brought forth mainly by the largest turnout of black voters in history. No hint of a Detroit or any of other city being slowly rejuvenated by local black administrations. 

It just may be that Oates' vision is dated, and that this novel is a monumental failure.  

1. Here are two reviews giving contrasting perspectives: one negative from Roxanne Gay, and one positive from Rose Tremain.

2. No, I don't know what the title means either.

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