Thursday, 7 April 2016
Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates
No doubt, this was “C. W. Haider”— the complainant. It was uncanny how, at a first glance, she resembled a white-haired Ayn Rand, with that writer’s mannish features and jutting jaw and an air both aristocratic and aggrieved. She appeared to be in her mid- or late sixties with wild white crimped hair barely tamped down by a maroon beret, and expensive-looking though ill-fitting clothing of a bygone era: shoulders padded to give her frame a muscular bulk, a gray pin-striped pants suit with double lapels and large bone buttons, leather shoes with stubby toes. She had taken possession of more than one-third of the first row, having spread out to discourage others.
In profile, C. W. Haider resembled a predator bird. If she’d cast her gaze about the courtroom I would have shrunk away guiltily. As the first of the cases was taken up, C. W. Haider made no attempt to disguise her impatience. Conspicuously she sighed and muttered to herself, shifting in her seat, rummaging amid her things— an ungainly large reptile-skin handbag, an even larger tote bag comprised of panels of a shimmering metallic material, a stack of manila folders and a single four-foot cardboard file. Her restlessness verged upon rudeness and drew sharp frowns of annoyance from Judge Carson; it was clear that the bailiff and other courtroom staff knew the wild-white-haired Ms. Haider though in her haughtiness she didn’t condescend to know them.
commentary: Joyce Carol Oates is one of those authors who makes the rest of us feel tired. Her ‘occupation’ is listed thus: Novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, literary critic, professor, editor. She is a full-time academic who has produced more than 70 books in many different genres. (Here’s a link to a nice interview with, and introduction to, her in the New Statesman magazine last year.) She is 77. I think she produced 3 books last year, and has 2 lined up so far for this year, but I might easily have under-counted.
I came across this one on Sarah Ward’s blog, Crime Pieces and decided now was the moment to read another book by Oates – when an author is this prolific you just can’t read them all. (In the words of Dame Edna Everage to Melvyn Bragg, you feel like saying ‘please don’t write any more till we’ve all caught up with you.’) It’s a short book , a novella really, very readable and entertaining, a quick page-turner. Successful writer Andrew Rush also has a second, secret, writing persona: Jack of Spades. (What a great author name that is). The hidden books are a lot nastier than the Rush books, but both are in the horror genre – Stephen King is namechecked a lot in the story for comparison purposes.
Jack of Spades is accused of plagiarism and outright theft by the woman in the above extract. The vexatious litigation unleashes an ever-more-horrible side of Rush – from early on it is clear that he is not the jolly man he seems to be in the opening pages, I don’t think any reader is going to be surprised by the lack of reliability in his narration. It’s well done, and quite nasty, and contains some satire of writing, publishing, and the legal profession. There’s some deliberate resemblance to RL Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I found it an entertaining and easy read, but (surprisingly) the word that most jumped into my mind was ‘competent’: it wasn’t startling, or shocking, or very literary. I felt I’d read a lot of stories like this one – it was a good example but not stellar. But full marks for shortness.
There’s a very wide range of different Jacks of Spades on the internet – those above are just skimming the surface, it’s quite fascinating to look at people’s different takes.