Tuesday, October 10, 2006

All of you get the New Yorker, right?

Joyce Carol Oates' story, "Landfill," gets a mention in today's Chronicle of Higher Education news page. The story, which revolves around a student's death at a frat party at a fictionalized version of Michigan State University, has prompted condemnations by officials and faculty at the College of New Jersey, where a missing student's body was discovered in a landfill in a manner similar to Oates' protagonist.

Oates told a New Jersey newspaper that her protagonist, Hector Campos Jr., is not intended to be a fictionalized verson of the New Jersey College student, John A. Fiocco Jr., and that her story is meant to be "a symbolic commentary on the dark side of the college experience."

In a much smaller way, I'm aggravated, as an MSU employee and alum, that Oates chose to set "Landfill" at "Michigan State University," even an obviously fictionalized one. Oates goes to great pains to demonstrate that her "MSU" is not the real university. Oates moves the campus from East Lansing to Grand Rapids, and invents a fictional fraternity and dormitory—"Brest Hall." Still, Oates' fictionalizations mirror reality—MSU is expanding its College of Human Medicine to include a facility in Grand Rapids—and stink of laziness. How hard would it have been to make up a name for her fictional school?

Oates claims to have not followed the John Fiocco Jr. case after having read an intial story in the New York Times, and that the level of similarity between her story and the real case was largely unintentional. This may well be true. Still, Oates has, in essence, taken a sensational story from a newspaper, barely rewritten it, and thrown in the name of a reputed party school to lend authenticity. This is not a great offense, but Oates is a very good writer, and I expect more from her.


Anonymous said...

It's FICTION, and a very powerful fiction at that. Far from giving offense, this tragic story imbues all too common real life-and-death problems (frat hazing; college binge drinking; racism; class strugle; family estrangement; isolation, alienation and loneliness) with a deeply humanistic artfulness -- a deeper look into not only what cannot be seen in newspaper reports, but that which we would perhaps like to look away from. Are we to believe MSU (the real MSU) or any big university is really free from such comparisons? Everybody knows there is a body count in this country, semester after semester, from similar tragedies. Of course a literal reading of any fiction is not the point. Let's hope this "controversey" brings more attention to "Landfill" by Joyce Carol Oates, so that perhaps a few college kids, a few parents, a few university brass might read it and think about it -- though that's secondary to art, in my view. Non-readers opinions about fiction should count for what they are: illiterate opinons. As for this reader, I can't think of any short story I've read in the New Yorker in years that came to life with more heart-tearing poignancy.

Gavin said...

First, I don't really think that Joyce Carol Oates is an author who suffers from a lack of attention. She's had a book chosen for the Oprah Book Club, and she is rumored to be a finalist for the Nobel Prize year after year. I'd say that's a pretty good indication that she's pretty well regarded across nearly the entire spectrum. Of course, that wasn't my point.

My point was that "Landfill" was a lazy outing from a very good writer. The power of the story is the manner of the student's death, and the lack of concern on the part of the people he chose to surround himself with, none of whom have any identity of their own. Oates' frat boys are stereotypes (although their insistence, regardless of the bloody dumpster, that nothing happened "in the house" rings true).

If Oates' story comes to life, it because she took nearly all of the major events from life. Sure, she makes Hector more isolated than Fiocco seems to have been, but does this make him more or less sympathetic? His death more or less tragic?

I've read better from Oates, and perhaps had the story been better, I would have been more willing to forgive Oates' shortcuts. Of course, had she used fewer shortcuts, the story would have been better.