Friday, January 22, 2010

By Joyce Carol Oates
Houghton Mifflin, $22, 165 pages


In her new novel, “A Fair Maiden,” the prolific Joyce Carol Oates has put her formidable talent and narrative skill in the service of a distasteful story.

Katya Spivak is a 16-year-old girl from a dreary, working-class home spending the summer as a nanny for a wealthy family on the Jersey shore. One hot morning, as she stares covetously at the clothing in the window of one of Bayhead Harbor’s many fancy shops, Katya is drawn into conversation with an elegant, elderly gentleman.

What would she choose from the gorgeous items on display, he asks, if she had her wish? The stranger is flattering, ambiguous, vaguely flirtatious yet formally correct. He calls her “dear” and gives her his card - his name is Marcus Cullen Kidder. Perhaps, he suggests they could meet again. “No!” Katya says as she hurries away with her two charges in tow. “No thanks. This isn’t a good idea right now.”

Yet the following day Katya sees things rather differently. The daughter of an alcoholic, exploitative mother and a father who, before he disappeared from her life, had been a compulsive gambler, she sees in Mr. Kidder - clearly rich, lonely and taken with her - a “mark.” She tells herself that “such men were asking to be exploited, duped.”

The relationship that begins with a surprise visit by Katya with Tricia and Kevin, the children she cares for, to Mr. Kidder’s well-tended mansion in the town’s historic district, initially seems to meet the needs of both parties. Mr. Kidder is overjoyed; he fusses over the children, offering them sherbet and cookies, and flatters Katya who, in turn, feels “a thrill of pride, a wave of childlike happiness.” Before long, he has given little Tricia a copy of the children’s book he wrote and illustrated and he has asked Katya to come back, and to allow him to paint her portrait.

At each advancing stage of their relationship - the first visit without the children, first evening visit, first time posing, first time accepting cash, first time removing her clothes - Katya is wary, confused, angry even and yet, finally, won over by the powerfully seductive combination of attention and money. Katya has never had much of either. When her mother calls her to drunkenly demand $300 to get herself out of a jam, Katya is disgusted and then, after hesitation, asks Mr. Kidder for help. He promptly writes a check.

He gives Katya fancy lingerie that she initially refuses, then puts on. And he showers her with attention that makes her feel grown up. He talks about “heimweh,” which he explains to her is “a German term” for homesickness, “a powerful sensation, like a narcotic. A yearning for home, but for something more - a past self, perhaps.” He plays the piano for her, then puts on a recording of a young man singing a plaintive ballad about a fair maid named Barbara Allen, revealing to her that the song was “both his [own] recording debut and the pinnacle of his career.” He makes vague allusions to a mission he has in mind for her. Repeatedly, he assures Katya that she is his “soul mate.”

The young girl is sucked in, aware she is being used in some way, often angered by it, yet unable or unwilling to stop spending time with the unctuous old man and thrilled with the money he gives her. When Mr. Kidder finally reveals what he wants her to do - much crueler, much more perverted than a mere sexual relationship - Katya panics. She comes up with a shaky plan for how to deal with the situation but it goes wildly wrong, almost resulting in complete disaster. And then, suddenly, the relationship is over leaving her “left behind, stunned.”

Ms. Oates’ writing is seductive; she quickly pulls the reader into this story, vividly evoking its picturesque locale, contrasting it with the grubby landscape of Katya’s home life. She deftly creates unusual, vibrant characters, not just Mr. Kidder and Katya but the Engelhardts, her condescending employers; Roy Mraz, the violent, cruel cousin with his “sweaty, muscled shoulders” who becomes her boyfriend; and her manipulative mother. At first, Katya’s ambivalence about how to behave and her childish longings, beautifully contrasted with Mr. Kidder’s selfishness and increasing desperation, elicit the reader’s sympathy.

But as the narrative moves toward its conclusion, the reader may experience some of the same feelings of building resentment as Katya does. The writing is repetitive and, increasingly, bogs down in preachy platitudes. “For there is no fear so primitive as the fear of being not-loved, and not-protected,” we are informed as Katya yearns to be kissed.

“There is no fear more primitive than the fear of being naked in a strange place,” we learn when first she poses nude. Katya overhears something, “and in this way [she] was given to know that Marcus Kidder had forgiven her.” Speeding toward the old man in his chauffeur-driven car, Katya feels dazed. “As through our lives such sensations overcome us,” the narrator expounds. “Springing out of nowhere to threaten our souls with extinction but then, as abruptly as they’ve appeared, they disappear. Or so we wish to think.”

It turns out that this is not a thoughtful reflection on youthful ambivalence and longing; it is not a story of change or growth. Exploitation is at its very heart. Despite its author’s tremendous list of works, a National Book Award and her multiple nominations for other prestigious literary prizes, including the Nobel, “A Fair Maiden” is unlikely to be popular. It is a nasty story told in a way that may well leave readers with a very bad taste in their mouths.

Stephanie Deutsch is a writer and critic in Washington.

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