Thursday, July 10, 2008

Murky Waters

By Drew

Does a demon beckon?
Do you follow?
Do you turn aside, mashing your fists into your eyes?

You won't know until it beckons. To you. So long as it temps others you can judge - can sneer - can express shock, disgust, outrage, and prim disdain - the usual emotions of punitive people. But you won't know. I didn't.
Joyce Carol Oates, The Assassins


As enigmatic as the above is, it becomes a perfect representation of the enigmatic, prolific Joyce Carol Oates. She can be brilliantly crystalline in one moment, maddeningly opaque and pretentious in another.

Oates understands as well as anyone that the Kennedys have become a modern American myth, in much the same way as Paul Bunyan and King Arthur. Often critics of the Kennedys use the word “myth” as a substitute for “fiction,” and certainly the “Camelot” of the early 60s is as much fairy tale as reality. However, Oates uses the mythology as part history, part legend, part folklore – a story that has become so ingrained in the American consciousness that it acts as shorthand for a host of emotions, memories, and meanings, symbolic as well as real. In recasting and retelling the Kennedy story in its various components, Oates allows her characters to display aspects of this mythology, using it as background to the story at hand, without having to start from scratch.

The above selection is from her 1975 novel The Assassins, her first go at the mythos of the Kennedy family. The Assassins is the story of the Petrie family in the wake of the assassination of the man around whom the family revolved, the overpowering Andrew. The storytellers are the three most strongly affected by Andrew: his brothers Hugh and Stephen; and his young widow Yvonne. This can’t be seen as a word-for-word comparison to the Kennedy clan; the Andrew is a right-wing commentator and former U.S. Senator (rather than a Democratic president), the father a former judge (instead of a bootlegger), the family itself Episcopalian rather than Catholic (except for Stephen, a convert), and from New York instead of Massachusetts. That being said, it would also be impossible to look at the triumvirate of survivors and not see the shadow of America’s royal family.

However, Oates deals far more directly with myth in her 1992 novella Black Water, her retelling of Chappaquiddick, which gives us all the elements we need: a girl (Kelly Kelleher), a U.S. Senator (“The Senator”) who’s had a bit too much to drink, a car, and a body of water. The rest, as we all know, is history.

And it should be noted that one of the fascinating aspects of Black Water is that it takes place in a world populated by the real-life Kennedys and their real-life history, although the real-life Chappaquiddick is never mentioned (understandably). There are references to the Kennedys (especially Bobby) as well as Ronald Reagan and George Bush (who is president at the time of the book’s events), and the Gulf War is as much a part of history as the Vietnam War. The basic story is the same, however; to the extent that Oates’ take on things describe what really happened, “The Senator” certainly does not come out looking very good. He’s a married man coming on to a young woman, a drunk who causes the accident thanks to his reckless driving, and a coward who not only flees the scene of the accident without trying to rescue Kelly, but also lies to his friend as to the cause of the fatal crash.

Oates may argue that she is not attempting a thinly disguised retelling of Chappaquiddick, instead presenting the "archetypal" story "of a young woman taken advantage of by an older man, but it serves as a damning indictment of Teddy nonetheless. (Anyone too young to remember Chappaquiddick would do well to read this novella, regardless of whether or not it’s really about Ted, and then ask themselves once again why this Kennedy was never elected president.)

If you’ve tried JCO in the past and been intimidated by her, Black Water is a good place to visit. If you’ve never read Oates at all, then you could do worse than to begin here. Oates prose has rarely been more clear, more powerful. Her hypnotic repetition of phrases, her relentless portrayal of Kelly’s misplaced belief in the Senator, her ability to tell the familiar story and still have you hoping for a different conclusion, all work to produce a work that is ultimately quite moving. We feel the claustrophobia she must feel as she is trapped in the sinking car, we feel her hope (and ours) ebbing away as the water continues to rise, we see her dying before our very eyes. There is always something disturbing, gut-wrenching, about a work such as this – whether in opera, on stage, in movies, or through the written word. You are presented a life that is seen in happier, more innocent times, and yet know that the story will not end happily ever after.

For there is no happy ending to Black Water, just as there was no happy ending for Mary Jo Kopechne. And ultimately, there was no happy ending for Ted Kennedy, either. He survived the disaster, true, in a way neither of his brothers did. He survived politically, if you consider his continual reelection to the U.S. Senate by the people of Massachusetts. But he was never elected president, never won the fame and devotion that Jack and Bobby did.

Perhaps worst of all for Edward M. Kennedy, he has been forced to live with the memory of what happened on that bridge for the rest of his life, a life that now appears to be in its last act. We can never truly know what happened that night, although we are not prevented from drawing conclusions based on the evidence at hand. We can never truly know what goes on in the heart and conscience of Ted Kennedy; we can only consider his public words and acts over the years and filter them through our own sensibilities. We can surmise, though, that lesser men might have chosen death rather than to live with such a haunting memory.

Indeed, the real world haunts each and every page of Black Water, as the words of Joyce Carol Oates haunt those who read it. Of a novelist, the reader can ask little more.

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