- Dark Eyes on America: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates
Since the publication of her first collection of stories, By the North Gate, more than forty years ago, Joyce Carol Oates's extraordinary productivity has been seen by both scholars and reviewers alike as a setback in her critical reception. Grumblings about Oates's prolixity have been intensified by her willingness to experiment with an astonishing array of literary forms, narrative genres, and thematic subjects. The first vantage point of Gavin Cologne-Brookes's study is the ability to tackle head on the plurality and qualitative heterogeneity of Oates's work. By referring to essays, poems, and plays written by Oates, this work gives visibility to genres usually neglected by critics while situating them in the context of her larger oeuvre. Although the ultimate focus of the book is on the novels (as it is made clear by the book's subtitle), the inclusion of these other genres is particularly valuable for highlighting how the generic amplitude of Oates's work reflects her own social engagement. Cologne-Brookes positions his study within a pragmatic framework that presents "Oates as a pragmatist in her own right, rather than as simply indebted to pragmatism among other ideas" (4). He emphasizes Oates's inquiring disposition, her willingness to use literature to test a wide range of questions surrounding social experience, and sees the inclusiveness of her work as effectively pragmatic.
Suggesting a continuum between pragmatism and poststructuralism, Cologne-Brookes maintains that "there is a direct line from Nietzsche to Foucault and Derrida as there is from Nietzsche to William James" (3). He also argues, however, that "unlike Nietzsche or Heidegger, pragmatists write out of a belief in the possibilities of [End Page 185] social change." The American pragmatist most typically associated with Oates is William James. It is, therefore, no surprise to find that most references to Oates's pragmatism are connected to James, but the book also sheds light on the links between her ideas and those of later pragmatists such as John Dewey, and more recent names such as Richard Rorty and Charlene Haddock Seigfried. One of the most interesting references in this study is, however, the allusion to Charles Sanders Peirce. The comments on "Theory of Knowledge" give an accurate portrayal of some of Oates's more pressing philosophical concerns during the seventies; one only wishes this section could be expanded, perhaps through references to wider intellectual and philosophical debates that characterized this decade. If this approach goes against the grain of current critical trends, it does so in order to remain faithful to its subject, since Oates herself resists the more overtly theoretical approaches that dominate much of academic thinking today. Quoting John Sturh, Cologne-Brookes maintains that pragmatism "speaks critically, and wisely, to our contemporary global society, its massive and pressing problems, and its distant possibilities for real improvement" (4), but the ways in which this is achieved, in general philosophical terms, could be further explained and developed. A wider picture of pragmatism today would enhance the critical and scholarly projections of this study, highlighting the diversity of pragmatist thinking. This could include, for instance, references to the way theories like Peirce's model of signs as triadic relations have been re-examined to counter the currently dominant post-Saussurean emphasis on the signifier of structuralist and deconstructionist criticism. Overall, however, Cologne-Brookes's reading of the pragmatic elements of Oates's fiction is convincing and his stress on the question of the value of her work is refreshingly to the point.
The book is divided into five sequential chapters that consider how the development of Oates's work conveys "her evolving consciousness" (13). "Mirrors and Windows," the first chapter, examines Oates's early novels, from With Shuddering Fall to Wonderland. Cologne-Brookes considers that these early works lack the lively experimentalism of her later novels. If the early works are usually seen within a naturalist or social realist tradition, Cologne-Brookes finds in them a stronger tendency towards abstract contemplation, which...