The fiction of Joyce Carol Oates draws much of its dark power from American crime.
From her prodigiously anthologized 1966 short story Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? (based on serial killer Charles Schmid) to her 2000 novel Blonde (about the final days of Marilyn Monroe), she has used true crime stories as portals for her fictional forays into the crueler side of American culture.
In her 37th novel, My Sister, My Love, Oates turns her mordant vision on one of the most notorious unsolved crimes of the late 20th century: the 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey.
Given the themes of violence, especially toward girls and women, that have haunted Oates' writing life, the story must have been irresistible: a girl child turned into an intensely sexualized entertainer, then mysteriously killed in her own home — a crime whose investigation was apparently botched or quashed at every turn.
The tale is familiar
Not that Oates is interested in playing CSI. In My Sister, My Love, the life and death of a little girl — "a fraction of a lifetime, yet in a way a very American lifetime: obscurity, fame, end" — is the center of a novel that is at once a savage satire of marriage and parenting, an unnerving dissection of our fascination with tabloid-style celebrity, a stylistic tour de force and a compelling mystery.
The novel's little girl is ice-skating phenom Bliss Rampike, daughter of Bix and Betsy Rampike of Fair Hills, N.J. Bliss is adorable on the ice in showgirl's slinky duds or sentimental angel wings, oddly blank at home. Named Edna Louise to flatter Bix's wealthy mother, she is rechristened when her aptitude for skating is discovered by Betsy, a stage mother who makes Gypsy's Mama Rose look like Mother Teresa.
Betsy's obsession with making her daughter a celebrity is matched by Bix's obsession with growing his power as an executive for companies with inscrutable product lines and names like Baddaxe, Scor and Univers.
Bix and Betsy are always spouting off about family values, but she has completely cut off her lower-class kin (won't even let them come to Bliss' funeral), and although the philandering Bix calls Bliss his "bestest-best little gal," he never manages to make it to any of the performances in her three-year career.
The incidental children
Both parents are monsters of self-absorption who see their children as accessories to their social climbing — and if the kids can't cut it, put them on another medication (heaven forbid a child in the Rampikes' social circles have any sort of mood, high or low).
Speaking of kids, that brings us to the book's narrator: Bliss' older brother, Skyler. Like Burke Ramsey, the likewise forgotten fourth member of JonBenet's family, Skyler is 9 years old when his sister is murdered.
He tells us her story a decade later: " 'Me' is a nineteen-year-old junkie in self-imposed exile in a rooming house on Pitts Street, New Brunswick, grimily barefoot in grungy underwear, embarked upon a quixotic — 'hopeless' — mission to write the only true account of his sister's life/murder/aftermath of/etc."
That's a fair sample of Skyler's headlong, half-mad, atrociously miseducated prose style, full of mangled brand names, malapropisms like "tabbouleh rasa" and showers of misused quotation marks. He's a mess, not to mention a spectacularly unreliable narrator.
A wounded narrator
And no wonder. Long before Bliss' death, he went from being the only child and Betsy's "little man" (as creepy as it sounds) to seeing himself as an outcast, ghostlike cripple, thanks largely to Bix pushing him into intensive sports training when he was barely more than a toddler, resulting in serious injury.
Skyler's relationship with Bliss is always emotionally ambiguous, even before she's almost famous: "Edna Louise said in a plaintive voice: 'Why doesn't Mummy like me, Skyler, the way Mummy likes you?' And that was the day Skyler began to love his younger sister. Just a little."
Her death devastates him and fractures the family for good, sending Skyler on a lonesome descent into places like the Verhangen Treatment Center for Doomed Children and Adolescents, not to mention the depths of what he calls Tabloid Hell, before his life takes some unlikely turns.
There's a novel-within-the-novel about Skyler's first love with Heidi Harkness, daughter of a famous ex-athlete and a murdered mother: "Often he'd sighted her, walking alone at the scrubby edge of campus. For this girl to whom he had never spoken he felt a stab of erotic yearning, or was it Schadenfreude: delicious German harm-joy.
"Thinking She is more famous than I am. More miserable."
Shades of 'Lolita'
The bravura stylistic mix of high-flown romanticism and feverish obsession in Skyler's narration, his asides and footnotes and loops from self-delusion to incisive observation, all recall another book, published 50 years ago, about a young girl who fell victim to other people's images of her — although poor Bliss Rampike lacks the self-possession of Vladimir Nabokov's Dolores Haze.
But, like Nabokov's Lolita, Oates' My Sister, My Love turns its mirror from the victim to the culture that produced and preyed upon her — and then on us, its readers, as we turn the pages faster: Oh, these people, they are just horrible, and we cannot look away.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.