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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: A Book of American Martyrs

A Book of American Martyrs - Joyce Carol Oates

Fact: There are some people in the world who make their ideology into a crusade. They believe they are right, even if they're presented with information that they are wrong. They stop at nothing to force their way of life onto others. They will resort to extreme measures if necessary.

Fiction: Everyone who shares that same belief or ideology also shares in the crusade. They all believe they are always right no matter the evidence against them. Everyone of a particular ideology charges ahead in the quest to convert the world to their way of thinking.

Joyce Carol Oates presents this “fiction” as a fact in her most recent novel, A Book of American Martyrs and it's troubling. The promise to present both sides of the abortion debate with empathy and an unbiased perspective is complete rot. On one side of the debate we have Augustus Voorhees, an abortion provider who is a community leader and a loving family man who is brilliant and well-spoken, a man who provides free abortions to women who cannot pay and does so because he is truly kind-hearted. Then there's Luther Dunphy. Dunphy is a Christian man who believes God is telling him to murder abortion doctors. Dunphy is ignorant. Dunphy is a common man who contributes nothing to society. Dunphy is a hypocrite who cheats on his wife and abuses his children. The Dunphys are against radio, television, movies, sex education, contraception, vaccinations, Tampax, alcohol, carbonated beverages, chewing gum, sugar, sugar substitutes, games like Monopoly, and a slew of other things. (No, I'm not making any of this up.) And all that is fine. There are men out there like Voorhees and there are men out there like Dunphy. The fact is, there are some people in the world who make their ideology into a crusade.

The problem comes in the blanketing stereotype of everyone. Every single pro-choice character is intelligent and wonderful, a model citizen. Every single pro-life character is a hypocritical and ignorant extremist. This is fiction. How is it that we open-minded individuals who have opposed these kind of blanketing statements now embrace them? Merely because the shoe is on the other foot? Come on, I expect more of us. If this book were making such statements about a marginalized group we've become accustomed to defending, we'd be up in arms about it. We'd call the author a bigot and demand a boycott. But simply because the group she attacks “deserves it,” we turn away and smile indignantly. I, for one, choose not to smile.

For the most part, A Book of American Martyrs fails for this very reason. It is fiction with an agenda. And it's not even masked in the slightest.

Luckily, the book gets away from Luther Dunphy and Augustus Voorhees. It becomes a novel about their children. And fortunately, for the sake of this story, Naomi and D.D. are much more rounded characters than their parents. They do not blindly follow the path that has been made for them. It's a much better and balanced novel in the last couple hundred pages, but that does not diminish the hatred of the first several hundred. The whole novel is well written and very Oatesian in all ways, but in the end, propaganda is propaganda, no matter how beautifully it is dressed.

This novel made me angry, but that can be a good thing: we need to talk about this. What worries me however is the direction we're going. Hatred and prejudice are wrong regardless of the recipient. Let's not lose sight of the truth.