Monday, February 17, 2014

My Sister, My Love. The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike by Joyce Carol Oates

* The canny reader will note that there must be a reason for highlighting this eccentric individual who appears fleetingly in this chapter as both "kindly" and somewhat sinister. Keep the rubbery-lipped young man in mind! (If I were a literary writer, I could assume that readers were primed to read my prose with, well--reverence, and care. But I am not, and so I can't. But note that nothing in this document is extraneous.)

For those readers--potentially, millions!--with an avid interest in American-suburban social climbing through playdating, this is the chapter you've been waiting. 

Oates is mean.

This story pinches and needles the reader constantly by making very explicit jabs at people being obsessed with celebrities and gruesome high-profile crimes, or at snooty readers who would not give a book in this genre--essentially, true crime--typically the time of day.

The latter is the best kind of mean. Because the book is written from the view point of a heavily medicated older brother of a 6-year-old figure skater prodigy who was found murdered in their home, the supposed author Skyler Rampike fills the story with footnotes, notes to the editor, and sarcastic apologies if he is not writing the story of a murdered girl in as gripping a way as the audience might want or, alternatively, not as stereotypically as people obsessed with reading trashy true crime stories would like.

Many times Skyler stops his recounting of the story to say, ah-hah, you thought I would use cheap suspense here, didn't you? Well no fear, the person I'm talking about is just X, so you don't have to feel suspense anymore.

It's a frigging Brechtian opera, this story. Many times, Skyler throws in sarcastic cliffhangers insinuating that he will reveal the true nature of the murder in the next chapter, with a cliched "Read on, dear reader" at the end of it. You kind of feel bad about being a shitty person; interested in social porn, you know?

On the surface, this novel is a meandering memoir of a brother who has been silently accused in the media of murdering her own sister but in his medicated haze he is quite unable to write in a linear fashion about his experiences and the dreams and memories that are brought about by sudden triggers. He may write down something shocking and on the next page plead the reader to forget about it, because he is not sure where the heck that memory came from and whether it was even true. 

The same images are repeated over and over again: the description of footage from his sister's, Bliss Rampike's, skating competitions that similarly were repeated over and over again in news, talk shows and gossip shows after her death; the description of the final family portrait that the family took, which also was reprinted in tabloids multiple times and which Skyler cannot escape even ten years after the murder took place.

If you are wondering why this all sounds really familiar, it's because this all kind of happened in real life, which makes this book even... meaner? I just started looking into this old case, and my goodness: everything down to the ransom note and suspicions are echoed in this fictitious story. 

Oates is able to make the metafiction work, while still writing a pretty damned good thriller. There are a few genuinely chilling moments, where suddenly you remember a single word from a few chapters ago that now has become a clue to who the real murderer was. 

It's one of those stories where any reader can make it their own: you can read it as a narrative about obsessing over celebrities and trashy gossip without caring how someone's life can be ruined over it. It can also be read as criticism to medicating our youth instead of letting them feel real feelings: Skyler was medicated for a variety of issues even before his sister was murdered, whereas basically he was just angry about his parents' behavior and absence in his life. It definitely addresses parents who vigorously live through their children without listening to their actual needs. It can also be read just as a creepy whodunnit.

The previous Oates I read was very different: although it sort of concentrated on a crime and a family living through the crime as well, the mood was much more dreamlike and just sad. This one is raw, angry and, like I said, mean. It's a bully of a book. If Oates can adopt such different voices and styles this easily, I can't wait to read more from her, no matter how upsetting the stories are.

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