I believe in coincidence. Simply because I believe that people who don’t believe in coincidences are just explanation-happy and having problems fitting their minds around the fact that not everything happens for a reason. Maybe that makes me cynical. I’m not convinced I’m right, but that’s where my instincts lead me. But coincidences happen. This is one of them.
My last entry was a review of a book written by a family member about her brutal sexual assault and rape in 1988. Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates, the next step in my literary quest, is a book that, while no physical rape actually occurs, is absolutely rife with aggressive sexuality and misogynistic language. It’s the story of a young woman who meets a man only referred to as The Senator at a Fourth of July party. The action takes place all in one day, although the timeline continually drops, in a rather stomach-somersaulty way, into the past, and then hurtles you into a future that you only hope is true, yet in that same deep, dank place inside us, the same place in which I believe coincidences are just coincidences, you know that the future is just a happy dream. A happy dream, in which the present is the nightmare.
The style of the prose is, at first, confusing, until you realize that the narrator is the protagonist, Kelly Kelleher, and that the reader is being transported by her thoughts, which, like most of our thoughts are disjointed and often completely removed from reality. But it is this stream of consciousness that makes this novel so haunting, and so familiar. At first, I thought that the main theme here was normality. What does it mean to be normal? What do normal people do? How do normal people think? Now this may be the overt theme of this book, and the reason that Kelly finds herself slowly drowning in the black water of the Maine marshes, but in my opinion, it’s not the important theme in this book.
It became apparent slowly, like turning the lights off in a dark room and slowly the objects in the room reappear as your eyes adjust. It started with what I saw as an interesting description of sexuality:
You know how it is, basking in the glow of a sudden recognition, his eyes, your eyes, an ease like slipping into warm water, there’s the flawlessly beautiful woman who lies languorously sprawled as in a bed, long wavy red hair rippling out sensuously about her, perfect skin, heartbreak skin, lovely red mouth and a gown of some sumptuous gold lamé material clinging to breasts, belly, pubic area subtly defined by shimmering folds in the cloth, and The Lover stands erect and poised above her gazing down upon her his handsome darkish face not fully in focus, as the woman gazes up at him not required to smile in invitation, for she herself is the invitation, naked beneath the gold lamé gown, naked lifting her slender hips so subtly toward him, just the hint of it really, just the dream-suggestion of it really, otherwise the advertisement would be vulgar really… (32).
I mean, isn’t that just the quintessential stereotype of what makes a woman attractive? Notice the indistinct face of the man. He could be any man. There is no other description of him, besides his “handsome darkish face.” The man doesn’t matter. He’s Everyman. But the woman (who, you’ll notice, also has no definable facial characteristics, nothing that would make her an individual) is the paragon of the slightly vulgar, woman-as-vessel, man-as-penetrator, sexual icon that women today still try to embody, and anything less can only be a failure.
This description is bad enough, but slowly the novel’s language becomes more and more overtly sexual and misogynistic. Phrases like “thrust yourself up to the hilt, oh Christ” or scene descriptions like “in a shallow ditch…the headless naked body of a flesh-pink doll…the hole between the shoulders like a bizarre mutilated vagina where the head had been wrenched off” (149) are littered throughout the text. But it’s the protagonist, Kelly’s, attitude about her own survival and the man she’s with that is the most haunting. When the Senator, who had a vodka tonic in hand while driving, sped around a hairpin turn on a dirt road and spun off into the black water, the speed of the impact crushed the passenger side of the car, essentially trapping Kelly in the quickly submerging vehicle. Little by little, we realize the extent of Kelly’s injuries. But that’s not the horrific part. In his struggle to get out of the car, the Senator violently wrenches himself out of Kelly’s terrified grip, actually kicking her in the head in his frenzy to escape the Toyota turned death trap. And still, as the car slowly fills with water, Kelly is convinced that he’s coming back to save her. For every minute that goes by, she reinvents her story so that she doesn’t have to admit that he’s not coming back. As she fades in and out of consciousness, she goes over the events of the day again and again, constantly reminding herself that He chose Her out of all the other girls at the party. Until the moment she finally succumbs to the water in her lungs, she has to believe that he is coming back to her, to save her.
The only time in the whole book where we, the reader, are removed from Kelly’s interior monologue is when we see the Senator escape from the car and find a phone. Now, we’re in the Senator’s head, and there are no noble intentions, no humane desire to save the woman that he put in danger in the first place. Instead, there are only fears of what this will do to his political reputation, whether this will bar him from ever being voted President of the United States. So he calls his friend who was at the party and says that the girl was drunk, the girl grabbed the wheel, the girl drove the car into the water. This is the part that really drove home the story’s similarity to rape: the transference of blame from the guilty person to the victim. Kelly made herself available to this man, this man that “chose” her, even remarking to herself that “I’ve made you want me, now I can’t refuse you” (115). And he threw her away. He used her for his own gain and then abandoned her to her fate, even using her as a means for his own survival, at the expense of hers.
I wish I could say that the real world is a different place from the world that this story takes place in. I wish I could say that women no longer make themselves the sexual playthings of men, and then allow these men to throw them away. I wish politics was really about making the world a better place, instead of about shifting guilt and blame around, like an anorexic does with the food on her plate to make it look like she’s doing what she should be. I wish a lot of things, but wishing isn’t being. This is why fiction is important. It’s not facts, it’s not a timeline, but it chronicles the things that cold indifference never could. It brings unpleasant truths into the light. And bringing them into the light is one step towards changing them.