The title of Joyce Carol Oates’ fifty-ninth novel is extracted from Walt Whitman’s “A Clear Midnight,” which ends with: “pondering the themes thou lovest best, Night, sleep, death and the stars.” These themes, indeed, subsist throughout Oates’s narrative, and one might even say that Oates loves them best, too. They are the pilot light for the array of deep burning topics that her nearly eight hundred paged book undertakes. The book is a fictional addition to Oates’s A Widow’s Story: A Memoir. It is a book that is politically engaged –– where police murder, and a high-school principal bears the same delusions, hypomania, and narcissistic symptoms as a certain president –– tackling prejudice, class, vanity, family, purpose, and of course, death. Oates’s novel is about life in white America at the end of 2010, and it’s so extensive that a graduate-level English literature seminar would fail to discuss all of its machinations.
The story begins in the latter half of Obama’s first term when John Earle “Whitey” McClaren (who voted for Obama) stops his vehicle on the shoulder of the expressway in hopes of helping a brown-skinned man who is being brutalized by the police –– the same police that Whitey backed when he was mayor of Hammond, New York. Whitey is excessively tasered by the police. He has a stroke and falls into a coma. It is affective reading given the gratuitous killing of George Floyd, whose death is just one in a country with a long history of state-sanctioned murder. Jelani Cobb, staff writer at The New Yorker, writes that “it’s both necessary and, at this point, pedestrian to observe that policing in this country is mediated by race.” Oates’s story, then, seems like a necessary one, especially for white readers who do not believe that it is pedestrian. The difficulty in Oates’s story is the fact that Whitey is rather unmistakeably white, while victims of police brutality are disproportionately Black.
Whitey, who like his nickname evinces a certain complacency and peace of mind about the implications of Blackness, represents an idealism in the American story that ignores issues of race and, ironically, police brutality. When Whitey is taken down, the romanticism evaporates, exposing the pretense in the lives of his family. Without belief, Whitey’s widow, Jessalyn, along with her five grown-up children –– Thom, Beverly, Lorene, Virgil, and Sophia –– begins to experience an existential crisis.
Oates’s writing is nearly flawless. Her pen is so brilliant that any reader may believe that they actually know what it is like to be in a coma. Not only does every metaphor hit, but she has perfected her stream of consciousness technique. Her use of fragments and jettisoning of pronouns and verbs mirrors the disjointed and lightning-quick chain reaction that our brains perform before and after interactions and in the moments between dialogue –– the moments of listening, not listening, feeling, and thinking. The result is a rather complex and life-like portrayal of a family, with all its history, motivations, and reaction to death and the stars.
Oates makes such an interrogation of vanity that has not been done since William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Her novel speaks with his, but by allying vanity with racial prejudice she takes it a step further –– Oates exposes how decorum and appearances are an underlying motivation that is often couched in moralizing arguments. For example, Jessalyn’s daughters act like they are worried about their mother’s fragility while they are actually concerned with judgment from neighbors and losing their inheritance to their mother’s new Hispanic friend. Mixed up within that vanity is a smokescreen of complicity. The McClarens, especially Whitey and Thom, in order to hold on to their vanity, actively ignore truths and hold on to romanticized versions of their stories. This requires withholding certain information the family has spent much effort “not wanting to know,” and so after a large chunk of time passes, entire histories are ignored and prejudices kept.
Night. Sleep. Death. the Stars. shares another characteristic with works of fiction from the Victorian era. The night theme is constituted through gothic imagery at the family house on Old Farm Road. For most of the story, Jessalyn lives alone in the huge property like an abandoned, haunted mansion, with nothing but a stray, black, one-eyed tomcat to keep her company. But it is at night when others are at the house that it gets creepy, and Jessalyn’s name for the cat, “Mack the Knife,” foreshadows moroseness and eventual violence.
Like in Whitman’s poem, the night is when the day’s distractions cease and the soul is revealed. For each McClaren, the night, the old house, and the soul grow into something different. Sleep is closely associated with night, but after trauma, sleep becomes a barometer for the waking hours. How the McClarens sleep or don’t sleep, dream, or sleepwalk becomes a part of their struggle to move on from a shattered life. In the end, they must all decide what the stars mean to them.
Night. Sleep. Death. the Stars.
By Joyce Carol Oates
Published June 9, 2020
Keith Contorno is a Chicago-based writer and educator.