An evening with Joyce Carol Oates at Revolution Books, Berkeley

May 14, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper |


From the staff of Revolution Books:

On April 30, an overflow crowd came to hear writer Joyce Carol Oates at Revolution Books, Berkeley.

Joyce Carol Oates, 79, has published more than 100 books. She is known for her novels and short stories, for writing about people from all walks of life. She writes with a deeply critical eye about America without a sugar coat—about injustice, police brutality, women, rape, race, and violence. She makes you feel it.

The audience included people who had read dozens of her novels through the years; some of them arrived carrying well-read and well-loved hard covers and paperbacks. In spreading word about the event, we met people eager to talk about the art, depth, and breadth of her writing, what it had meant to them, and why they anticipated each new work.

Oates was one of the first to send a statement of support for RB last fall, when it came under attack by fascists: “It is outrageous that Revolution Books is being targeted by right-wing / fascist/ T***p-supporters. We in the Berkeley community & throughout the country are solidly on your side, & applaud your courage, tenacity, & determination. #ResistPersist.” Oates recently participated in the bookstore’s event honoring the writers from “shithole” countries, reading a poem by Jamaica Kincaid. And after the last fascist attack where a man threatened to burn down Revolution Books, she made time to come for a reading.

A Book of American Martyrs

Introducing her reading, Oates said that she is often accused of having a “dark, exaggerated vision,” and when she set out to write A Book of American Martyrs she had not anticipated the atmosphere it would be released into—“that things would be so virulent” as they are now under Trump. The novel is an account of a premeditated murder of an abortion doctor and the ripple effect and social ramifications of this terrible act, explored through time and the lives of members of the families both of the murdered and of the murderer. The murdered abortion doctor is drawn from a composite of “heroic, extraordinary people.” His family disintegrates after the murder and struggles with feelings of revenge. The novel also goes deeply into the situation, lives, and thoughts of the family of the murderer. Oates said she conducted interviews and did the research to delve deeply into characters who are a part of the anti-abortion movement. These characters, too, come to life in the book.

For her second reading selection, Oates read a passage from “Fractal,” which appears in a new collection of short stories: Beautiful Days. “You all know what fractals are, sort of?” “Fractal” is in the genre of speculative fiction; the characters are realistic, the context, fantastic. In it, Oates explores the choices people make, must make, at every turn of their lives, consciously and unconsciously. The story begins with an interesting exchange between a mother and her precocious son about determinism, where he argues with certainty that there is only one possible outcome, and that where we are now is proof of this. She is doubtful but cannot articulate her thoughts. The story wrestles with these questions in surprising ways.

Oates writes, among other questions, about the violence in American society. In her work, the violence she depicts is not gratuitous, but is meant to vividly confront the reader with a society full of injustice. During the event, she spoke about the hope she feels about the possibility of a “new generation that doesn’t comply or acquiesce to act within the bounds of what you are supposed or expected to do.”

After the reading and discussion, people stayed to get their books signed, to talk with each other and learn more about the mission of Revolution Books. Many expressed their support for Revolution Books in the face of the fascist attacks.


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