On growing up poor and desperate, and finding oneself in The Wonderland Quartet by Joyce Carol Oates.
When it came time for lights out in the group home, I'd keep reading, blanket over my head, flashlight in my hand. Books can take you somewhere else, can be a balm and comfort both. The flip side is that they can hurt you just as deeply. Reading under that blanket, I was assaulted again and again by bootstrap narratives of self-resilience. You know the ones: With enough determination and enough perseverance you too can accomplish anything. Oh, could I? All these novels were just an incredibly fancy way of saying, "Try harder." It was as if someone had a pen to write with and instead used it to stab me in the heart — me, or any of the kids in the home.
A lump of a teenage girl slept in the bed next to me. She'd suck her thumb and rub her feet together, sound asleep. She'd been in the system much longer than I had — since she was 3. I wondered how she would fare as one of the characters in those Ayn Rand narratives — running the railroad system, having a romance with an engineer. Would she be rigid and powerful, with the Medi-Cal stickers they gave us, the G.E.D. they offered us, the psychotropic medication, and the actual scripts that were our food stamps in those days? Would she wave them in the face of her lover with her high heels and nylon stockings and tell them how to run shit? Had she ever even owned stockings?
I needed to know. Was our lot in life due to a lack of determination and perseverance? All my life there's been that damn story haunting me, about the humiliations that were sliced into us over and over at the foster care factory and even before that over on the poor side of town. The guy at the checkout whose card gets declined and the person in line behind him who sighs with agitation.
It wasn't until years later, when I was in my twenties, that I found the counternarrative, the response I had been seeking for so long. In a set of four books collectively called the Wonderland Quartet, Joyce Carol Oates redefined for me what books could teach me about the world I'd grown up in. In the small world where I grew up, there was only fast food and public transportation and cockroaches and rabbit ears extended with hangers on top of the television and having to stand in the right place for reception. What I knew were stories of a cycle that held people down. The Wonderland Quartet gave words to things I already knew: The problem faced by poor people is poverty. Or rather, the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. The sort of terror that dwells deep in the meat of my psyche — everything I need to tell you about me, about people, about power — is brought to life by the men and women of these books.
The Wonderland Quartet, ignited by both reverie and rigor, remains not only relevant but prophetic about economic violence and many varieties of disparity.
Composed of the novels A Garden of Earthly Delights, Expensive People, them, and Wonderland, the Wonderland Quartet was written in the late '60s and early '70s, when men were said to write sprawling historical novels and women were said to write quiet domestic novels. Yet there is nothing quiet or domestic about the books, which make up a loosely connected saga of American class struggles in the 20th century.
For me — a woman, and a lesbian to boot — the books represented a kind of literary oasis. I am not a feeble person; in fact, to the contrary, I come from sturdy stubborn stock. My people are short and round and brown, they know how to survive on little. They can break shit and build shit and smoke all kinds of shit. Yet, despite our thick, staunch skin, even the smallest trace of moral suffering can destroy me. I can make tuberculosis, malnutrition, lice, anemia, scabies, addiction, and any other poor woman's disease my bitch — but the raw realities of ethical and economic disparities have my throat, my pen, my heart twisted in their grip.
What a great triumph, then, is it to have a sprawling American tale with a woman at its center. I read them hanging backwards, my legs dangling out of open windows, a menthol cigarette in my mouth. This was the way I got lit. The first novel in the quartet, A Garden of Earthly Delights, is focused around Clara Walpole and the men in her life: her father, her lover, her son. The namesake of the first section is her father, Carleton, a migrant fruit picker, with vague aspirations that are thwarted by marriage and children. Carleton has an appreciation for boxers, who prove their manhood by stoic endurance: "The more punches a man takes, the closer he is to the end."
I knew instantly what this meant, because there is something so satisfying about the simplicity of boxing, or any physical battle, against others, or against myself. In the television room of a temporary group home in Santa Monica, I was a 15-year-old Filipina sitting on the couch, turning on the news and stumbling upon a Filipino ritual, a grisly Easter celebration, in heat, on dirt, amongst children and grandparents and young people and strangers and families. Men walked through the town barefoot. With a bag of fabric over their heads, a vine atop the fabric, they whipped their backs with palm fronds. Cut to: three bold-faced men, lying solemnly, shirtless and wearing cloth around their waists, crowns of thorns upon their heads, while one by one a nail was driven into the palm of each hand and the tops of their feet, as the cross was held upright. Then they got the greatest gift of all. Vindication. Forgiveness.
What struck the high-pitched hollow in my heart was that there was no screaming, no writhing, just the calmness at the center of the nails — no pain registering on anyone on camera, only on me. But my horror was met with equal parts hope. This self-inflicted pain was a thing. A thing that could be done. A thing that could make things right for these men and their families. I felt a longing, a longing for an act such as this, even before I fully understood it. Because when it comes to things that cannot be undone, pain is such a small brunt to bear.
Later in A Garden of Earthly Delights, Clara declares, "I don't know what I want, but I want it!" She then marries a man named Lowry, because he is her soonest form of escape. In my bones I knew this sensation — this feeling of powerlessness — and still know it. Life is still teaching me how to dream. Before I entered the group home, I remember riding shotgun in an old Valare down Topanga Canyon. The driver, desperate to shoot heroin into the jugular vein that ran along his neck, unable to see the vein, broke off the rearview mirror and, with the engine still running, threw the car in park on the thin dirt road, ran out to the front of the car, bent down beside the headlights, and used the mirror to find one of his only good veins left. I sat silently and struck a deal. I will do everything right. I will be good if I could please just make it through this. I will do everything right. I will be good if I could please just make it through this.
Then there was the group home — temporary, only for two weeks to a month. Then foster parents — my first feeling of hope. Hope made me stay on good behavior, helped me earn points. Because the group homes had a point system — points for being clean, following rules, and not cussing. I began to understand that "being good" meant being invisible. What I wanted — what I needed — was to be loved, to be touched. I don't know what I want, but I want it. I touched other children, other boys and girls. And I learned that this was "bad behavior." I got caught. I got written up. I watched the boys run away out a window and wanted to chase after them. But that would make me a "runaway." A juvenile delinquent. A resident in a home of worse strangers: juvenile hall. No more high school. No hope of college. Only jail. Only hopelessness. So I stayed.
The second book in the Wonderland Quartet is Expensive People. The people of this story are "expensive," rather than rich; their luxury comes at the cost of their children, servants, and rejected past.
Oates was describing back to me the experience of my childhood. One of my foster parents had been a successful filmmaker — an expensive person — and the embodiment of the hypocrisy she described. I was 15, playing outside, fencing with sticks, with the other children in the family — the biological children, his children. He stopped me and said, "I don't know how they play where you come from, but we don't play that way here." I'm not sure what that meant, but it was one of the most violent things I'd ever heard.
Richard Everett, the narrator of Expensive People, also felt the need to be useful, polite, and invisible at times. Richard is an obese, half-crazed adolescent who is obsessed with his mother, the glamorous novelist Natashya Romanov. Natashya—also known as Nada, as in "nothing"—seems to possess most of the power in this narrative.
But this doesn't hold true for many other women in the Wonderland Quartet. Maureen Wendall, in them, feels that she is doomed by her femaleness, by the things she desires but doesn't understand. This is a metaphor for all women's lives, even those of rich women: As one character says, Maureen "lives in a dream, waiting for a man. There is no way out of this, insulting as it is, no woman can escape it."
But I fought against it fierce. I had that fight in me — against others, against myself. I was a teenager, my innocence gone, and I was becoming an angry wild thing. I took some girl's eyeliner, burnt the tips of it, and rolled the warm pencil over my lids. It made me look tired and uninterested. In the afternoons, when they were bored, some of the girls played with me. My hair, my face. They outlined my lips with a dark brown pencil and filled them in with a deep shade of red. The color of blood, the color of heinas. The color of whore. Those afternoons, they paid attention to me the same way that my mother's boyfriends had paid attention to me.
The pain of the disparities explored in these Oates' novels was the theme of my own adolescence — the poverty, the desire, and the fight. But they crashed against each other inside me, so much so I tried to die. Once. Up in my room. I lived with my mother, on the top floor apartment in a big building, at the end of a cul-de-sac, along the 405 Freeway. Small sliding windows, office-style carpeting, a mirror that anchored thin mirrored shelves with gold veining. Nothing nice. This was before either of my brothers died. This was before I was taken away from my mother. It was just the weight of the sadness of it. I was 13 and had barely begun working and I was already so tired. The poverty was always there, looming over us — like a molester. I remember taking a shower, shaving my legs, putting on nice underwear, some clothes. I remember the Tylenol. You know how this ended. How long did I sleep? Was it 10 hours? Eight hours? It was just a regular night. It ended in a clumsy secret. It ended in a searing burst of disappointment when I awoke the next morning — without occasion.
Of the four books in the Wonderland Quartet, I related to the central character Loretta of them most. If you have time for only one of these novels, or if you have time for only one more novel in your life, read them. Love-struck, 16-year-old Loretta, hours after losing her virginity, loses her first lover to a bullet fired by her brother. Within a few desperate hours, she gains a husband. Loretta then moves to roaring Detroit, where she grapples with desperation and hunger. This was my plight, thinking a powerful person would be my solution, when powerful people only exacerbated my powerlessness.
A similar theme unfolds in the final novel, Wonderland. Protagonist Jess Vogel is the only survivor of his family's massacre by his deranged father. Through the help of various adoptive parents and mentors, he becomes a neurosurgeon. I, too, was able to have so many loving mentors and adoptive parents. I often wanted to do what they did, to become them — whereas, through his foster parent and mentor, Jess Vogel becomes fascinated by and drawn to the freakish, the grotesque, and the monstrous, although he wishes only to heal. Like Jess, I am drawn in by all our naughty raw bits. I want to know your insides, your intentions, but only to put my fingers to the keyboard over and over again to attempt to make sense of things, attempt to not repeat things.
In the afterward to them, Oates quotes the poetic epigram from John Webster's tragedy The White Devil, which asks the vital question, "…because we are poor/Shall we be vicious?" This is the question to which the Wonderland Quartet provides an extended answer. The short answer is no, that in fact most of the central characters began poor and powerless and as the narrative progressed they gained some wealth or power, sometimes it was artificial or fleeting, and therefore was rooted in fear and insecurity. It was the greed and the desire to hold on to any gains that made them vicious, even more so the systemic exploitation, the inequities overall. Like my loving terrier guarding her food against a lion or a banker. It is not the terrier that is vicious, nor has the food made her vicious — but the disparity of the thing.