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July 30, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | July 30, 2008 |

Is it painful to realize that you, too, are but a footnote in others’ lives, when you had wished to imagine you were the text?

So ponders Skyler Rampike, the protagonist (although not necessarily the star) of My Sister, My Love, the latest from the ever-prolific Joyce Carol Oates.

In her latest work, Oates tackles the murder of a child and the tabloid frenzy it ignites. Inspired by the JonBenet Ramsey case, Oates delves into the minds of the Rampike family, whose daughter Bliss (a six-year-old ice skater, instead of the pageant darling that was JonBenet) is found murdered in the family home. The family is thrown into both disarray and “tabloid hell,” as the family achieves a level of fame that was impossible while Bliss was alive.

Of course, the Rampikes deeply grieve the loss of their daughter (although the sincerity of this grief is doubted by many), but none are so affected as Skyler, the older brother doomed to live forever in his little sister’s shadow. The story is told from his point of view; indeed, it is written by him, struggling as he is to come to grips with his sister’s death almost ten years later.

Ripped to shreds in the tabloids, each of the Rampikes is suspect, even though a known pedophile has confessed to the murder, a confession that is implausible yet comforting. Still, as Skyler’s story unravels, it becomes clear that his parents are less than admirable people. First, there’s Bix, whose philandering ways are known to everyone, even young Skyler, who has witnessed his father with other women and even finds a used condom in Bix’s car. Then there’s Betsey, whose yearnings for popularity are more befitting a girl half her age. Betsey, who uses Bliss to gain the love and attention she failed to gain on her own.

But Bliss wasn’t always the favored child. Bliss Rampike was born Edna Louise, and was such a needy, whiny baby that Betsey, who cared little for her youngest child, frequently left Edna Louise in the care of the housekeeper. During this time, Skyler was Betsey’s “little man” and the recipient of her love and attention. Betsey, once an ice skater herself, even hopes to pass her love of the ice onto her son. Skyler writes that

In the beginning—long ago!—there wasn’t Bliss. There was Skyler, but not Bliss. Not yet Bliss! No one knows this. No one has recorded this. Of the tens of thousands of Bliss-cultists who have polluted cyberspace with their crazed factoids and perve-rantings not one of them knows this: that in the beginning it was Skyler who’d been meant to be the star.

Unfortunately, Skyler’s inherent clumsiness prevents him from fulfilling his mother’s dreams. As his value decreases, Edna Louise’s increases, especially when Betsey learns that, where Skyler has failed, Edna Louise could succeed. Just four years old, Edna Louise is a natural on the ice. After Betsey learns in a vision from God that Edna Louise would be their destiny, “Edna Louise” dies and is reborn as Bliss.

As Bliss’s star rises, Skyler becomes more and more of a footnote in his family. Soon Bliss earns fame for the family, and, as nineteen-year-old Skyler notes, “They all lived horribly ever after.” Oates plumbs the depths of this “ever after” (as well as the events leading up to it) with her usual obsessiveness. The result of this obsession is breathtaking: Oates has done more than simply imagine what this family has endured, she has lived it, recreated it. Her prose is fluid, conversational, and utterly believable, and it is difficult to believe that Skyler Rampike does not exist, did not write My Sister, My Love.

Those familiar with the author will recognize the fragmented, non-linear format that has come to characterize many of her works; and yet, after almost 70 books, Oates manages to avoid seeming stale or clich├ęd. My Sister, My Love is rife with post-modern flourishes: footnotes, self-reflections, addresses to the reader, handwritten segments, and even stretches of blacked out text. In the hands of a less-able author, these touches would seem contrived, but Oates makes them appear natural. True, My Sister, My Love is a bit long, but the seeming simplicity of her effortless prose prevents the reader from minding.

Few escape blame in My Sister, My Love. Certainly Bix and Betsey are guilty of a variety of crimes, but Oates indicts all parents who attempt to live vicariously through their children. Also condemned are the media and the scandal-loving public that loves nothing more than to devour the tragedy of others. Oates reminds readers that sensationalism is not reality; such tragic media figures are real, are suffering, and just might not deserve the ignominy of tabloid hell.

Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.

Living Dolls

My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates / Jennifer McKeown

Books | July 30, 2008 |

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