Tuesday, August 14, 2012

More than a critique of men: A meditation on the soul

American AppetitesAmerican Appetites by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

American Appetities is about, not surprisingly, many appetites--good food, sex, power, position. Ian and Glynnis, the central family in the narrative, hold a prime social position as they hold big parties and serve up Glynnis's amazing food. But one phone call from Sigrid, a former friend, really just an aqcuaintaince, changes everything. Ian rushes to help Sigrid, an innocent gesture of kindness on the surface, yet a gesture which ripples through to the very end of the narrative.

From one angle the novel seems to be a critique of men, as Bianca, the main character's (Ian) daughter, insists "you men who run the world, you stick together...you cover up for one another's crimes" while they wait for her mother to regain consciousness after an accident precipitated by the revelation of Sigrid in Ian's life. And many of the men, we come to find out, in the high brow university/Institute crowd are having affairs. Most devastating in the last chapters, Sigrid Hunt a social climber, the woman who Glynnis thought Ian was having an affair with, has become tamed, accepted into her role as server of food, of wetting powerful men's appetites.

Yet it's more than simply a gender critique. Glynnis's anger at Ian's possible infedelities bring to light her own various infedelities. The book is also a meditation on the meaning of the soul. This theme comes earlier before any action in the plot during a conversation at dinner. Here it is philosophical: if you have a soul then it is "something other than you, since you have it" and later "At least, if one is neither a soul nor possesses a soul... one can't lose his soul." Much later Ian, now on trial for murder, counters Spinoza's notion that the first endeavor of the mind is to affirm the existence of the body: "come off it friend, The body is all that's there."

During the first 100 or so pages Oates creates characters who have, while troubled, souls, substance, meaning. But as the story continues not only do the men's souls--their friendships, their positions--crumble into wisps of light fabric, so do the women's, so does the narrative. One might, as one reviewer stated, begin to feel disconnected from the characters, but one might also view this as Oate's unveiling: there is nothing more than appetites and body, at least in these peoples' lives.

The last scene is about food with friends, but friends Ian knows he will not see again, a scene where the background character of Sigrid comes full circle to take up a position in society, to not feel offended, serving another piece of kiwi pie, eerily ending on a simple mundane question, "Won't you all have just a little more?"

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