Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You by Joyce Carol Oates
In Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You, a somewhat unconventional Young Adult novel, Joyce Carol Oates explores the pressures and experiences of the senior year of high school for several friends. First, let me say that I am always amazed that Joyce Carol Oates manages to produce the volume of work that she does. I am in awe that one woman is so prolific and that so much of it is just so engaging and well written. But it strikes me in reading and thinking about Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You that Oates's genius lies not in her ability to churn out words (although as a writer, I certainly envy her that) but in her understanding not just of human nature but of what motivates humans, especially women in American culture. We see this in her more famous, more serious, more literary works like Blonde and We Were the Mulvaneys, but here to Oates displays an understanding and sensitivity to the feelings and neuroses and traumas that plague women and young women in our culture, such as self-mutilation, suicidal ideation, body image issues, and eating disorders.
In what is clearly a Young Adult novel, Oates presents the high-pressure prep school world of friends Merissa, Nadia, and their recently deceased friend Tink Traumer. This is a world that lacks the glamor we have come to expect from series like Gossip Girl and instead shows the shadow side of the world of moneyed teen overachievers. This Young Adult novel lacks the sort of clearly delineated plot that some readers might prefer, focusing instead on several character-driven trajectories. Oates structure the novel by breaking it into three separate parts, each with a distinct point of view of one of three central characters: Merissa, Tink, and Nadia. By doing so, Oates invites us to focus on the girls and their emotional lives, rather than what happens to them externally. This then becomes a novel not about what happens but about how these girls respond and how they feel. This allows Oates the opportunity to explore in an authentic way the experience of being a teenage girl in contemporary culture.
Oates manages with thoughtfulness the very real emotional and psychological difficulties these girls face, self-mutilation or "cutting" being made to be particularly understandable. I think that for adults particularly it is easy to be dismissive of behaviors like self-mutilation and suicidal ideation, so prevalent really among young people. We tend to say to young women, "Just stop. Don't do it. Don't cut," not always realizing that there's a deep motivation behind the behavior and that the behavior fills some emotional void in the young woman. Oates's treatment of the theme allows us to understand and even empathize with what might otherwise seem such an incomprehensible choice. And it's precisely this kind of treatment of behaviors otherwise marginalize and labeled as neuroses and even pathological in our society that makes Oates remarkable. She takes that which we'd much rather dismiss because we want to ignore it and presents it in a way that it becomes not just understandable but something we can develop some compassion for, even if we continue to dislike the behavior.
As much as I like Oates's work and am drawn particularly to her novels which tend to be somewhat tragic, I am tired of the focus on the plight of the middle- and upper-middle class female. Certainly, this is a demographic I relate to. I understand the neurotic, prone-to-depression, slightly-anxious woman just trying to make her way in an upper-middle class world that feels hostile and threatening at every turn. But where is the sensitivity to those who truly suffer, to those even in the United States who are disadvantaged and abused? While Merissa, Nadia, and even Tink face difficulties that are both uniquely their own and are sadly prevalent among teenage girls in our culture--neglect by parents and emotional and psychological distress--I would like some acknowledgement that ultimately their position of privilege allows them opportunity to overcome these difficulties that the truly disadvantaged in our culture may not have.
NOTE: This review originally posted in a longer form at the book review website Luxury Reading.