"Where Is Art Going, Where Has it Been?": The Article The Writers' Chronicle Doesn't Want You to Read!!!
by Joyelle McSweeney on Aug.20, 2011
[Dear Folks, for a few years (!) I was a contributing editor at the Writers’ Chronicle. My job was to encourage people to submit articles, and that was the extent of my editorial duties, too. When my time was running out, I decided to submit an article myself, and was politely rejected with a form rejection note. It’s fair enough of course, it’s their magazine (although I like all of you pay my dues into the upkeep of the AWP– so looked at another way, it’s ours!). But if they’re going to publish diatribes like that of T-Hoagland(which at least has a lively bite to it), I’m not sure what makes mine so outre.
Well, you be the judge[s]. Article below.]
Where is Art Going, Where Has it Been? A New Reading of Joyce Carol Oates’s Landmark Short Story
by Joyelle McSweeney
1. Sometimes the canon is withering, leathery, and sometimes the canon is kind. In the case of the American short story, the canon is incredibly generous: it proffers “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, a story of questionable morals, and, therefore, uncanny force to the high school and college students who find it nestled in their heavy anthologies like a poisoned apple or a bomb.
2. This hyperanthologized short-story is so ubiquitous on writing and literature syllabi that it serves as an initiation into the modern short story form for many young writers. For such students, it serves as a portal to Art itself—an aperture on the beguiling, uncanny force of Art deploys on the Artist. “Where are You Going and Where Have You Been?” provides a livid and living (that is, undead?) emblem for Art’s uncanny methods and its power, a case study for the way Art contacts and then infects the Artist, forming assemblages or collages with the Artist through a radical contiguity. If Doestevsky could supposedly say of Russian literature, “We have all climbed out from under Gogol’s overcoat,” then I’d like to contend the following for writers introduced to the art of writing through Joyce Carol Oates’ 1966 story:
We are all continuously climbing into Arnold Friend’s car.
3. Let’s begin at the beginning, with our protagoniste, our non-Everywoman, “Connie”. Oates puts a lot of pressure on that name, opening the story up with the sentence: “Her name was Connie.”[i] The much-underlined name, then, is already an emblem, because this fifteen-year-old girl is a con-artist—emphasis on the artist. It’s because she’s a fake (and fakery=artifice=Art) that she will be so readily subsumed into the art-assemblage, the collage of pop-references, masks and materials, that is Arnold Friend.
4. The first information we will get about Connie, after her pointed name, is “She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.” This tells us something about Connie’s narcissim—another quality of the Artist—but also that her regard for her own prettiness causes her to see her image everywhere, even in the faces of others. Of her mother, Oates notes: “[Connie would] look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything.”[ii] That Oates ends this sentence on ‘everything’ causes the reader to likewise cast Connie’s image out across a panorama, her image, her prettiness, becoming a mask for each face.
5. If Connie is an Artist, prettiness is her medium. She works with it, she works it, she casts it everywhere, and it casts a spell. Her other medium is her voice, which Oates describes and redescribes with adjectives like the “quick, nervous, giggling” foregrounded in the story’s second sentence. Connie’s voice is a matter not of self-expression or communication but of artifice: “She had a high, breathless, amused voice that made everything she said sound a little forced, whether it was sincere or not.”[iii] Later, “her laugh, which was cynical and drawling at home—”Ha, ha, very funny,”—but highpitched and nervous anywhere else, like the jingling of the charms on her bracelet.”[iv] In this latter quote, the “giggling” of the opening paragraph is converted by a sprained homonym with “jingling” into a material thing, a bracelet Connie can wear.
6. But what really jingles is not the bracelet but the charms. Because Art works like a charm, and like a bracelet—it attracts, and it ensnares.
7. This attention to the sound of Connie’s voice as a mysterious, duplicitous material, a medium, recalls the way Deleuze and Guattari discuss sound in Kafka. They say “It isn’t a composed and semiotically shaped music that interests Kafka, but rather a pure sonorous material.” Connie’s voice is like this—a pure material. Deleuze and Guattari further hold, of Kafka’s story, “Josephine the Singer”: “it is unlikely that Josephine really sings; she only whistles in a way that is no better than any other mouse, perhaps even worse, but in such a manner that the mystery of her nonexistent art becomes even greater.”[v] This connection of Art’s mystery to its status as “pure sonorous material” seems to describe what happens later in Oates’s story, when Connie’s saturation with Art will be simultaneous to a total saturation with sound.
8. Having established Connie as the emblematic Artist, that is a con-artist, who works in the mixed, jingling media of prettiness and high-pitched sound, let us turn to Art embodied, in the person of Arnold Friend. Arnold’s car and even his body are falling apart at the seams; they’re both fake, a front. But as is less frequently pointed out, that is because they are collages, collages threatening simultaneously to dissolve into nothing and into violence, that is, the pure, vitriolic forcefulness of Art. That nothing-and-everything quality of Art is what gives it its duplicity and its true power.
9. It’s also worth noting that there is no real difference between Arnold and his car. Both emblematize Art. Both are disintegrating, almost like reanimated corpses, yet continue on with an undead persistence: “The gravel kept crunching all the way in from the road—the driveway was long.”[vi] Both are part of the same continuous cobbled-together material of inauthenticity. The car is painted gold; Arnold wears a wig and possibly pancake makeup. The car is painted with slogans, some of which are in code (““Now, these numbers are a secret code, honey,” Arnold Friend explained. He read off the numbers 33, 19, 17”), jokes, and extinct slang (“up at the front fender was an expression that was familiar—MAN THE FLYING SAUCERS. It was an expression kids had used the year before but didn’t use this year. She looked at it for a while as if the words meant something to her that she did not yet know.”). In fact, the strange, patched together car is covered with inscriptions, and, like a page, has a recto and a verso– “Around the other side’s a lot more —you wanta come and see them?” – although, painted on the contours of the car, it’s really a continuous, beguiling surface, full of runes, references, and unpredictable power which Connie, at first, resists.[vii]
10. The car, then, is pure Art, glittering and dangerous—also fake, patched together, done a violence to, ready to become a vehicle of violence. Arnold is continuous with this car (and so is his redundant, friend Ellie, who seems patched together with leftover material from the car and from Arnold himself). Arnold is not only fake, but stitched together (“One of his boots was at a strange angle, as if his foot wasn’t in it. It pointed out to the left, bent at the ankle. “) and his language is just as patched together. He can’t help but shed excessive language as the outer material, the epithelial layer of himself. He reels off the names of her friends and lets loose an autistic stream of recorded-feeling slang, as when, provoked by Ellie, he responds with the following:
“Ellie keep to yourself, this ain’t your date right? Don’t hem in on me, don’t hog, don’t crush, don’t bird dog, don’t trail me,” he said in a rapid, meaningless voice, as if he were running through all the expressions he’d learned but was no longer sure which of them was in style, then rushing on to new ones, making them up with his eyes closed. “Don’t crawl under my fence, don’t squeeze in my chipmonk hole, don’t sniff my glue, suck my popsicle, keep your own greasy fingers on yourself!”
11. This stitched together skein of language is analogous to and continuous with the collaged aspect of the car and of Arnold himself. It’s familiar, yet off, it’s uncanny, unheimliche (literally, un-homelike), and it will force the Artist out of her home. In addition to this moment of absolute excess and gratuitous pleasure in the surface and like/not-like -ness of language, Arnold also speaks in the same paradoxical rhetorical questions which clot up the mother’s speech and, indeed, Oates’s own doubly interrogative title. He says, “Can’tcha read it?” “Don’tcha wanta see what’s on the car? Don’tcha wanta go for a ride?”[viii] “Dontcha believe me, or what?”[ix] “Don’tcha know its Sunday all day?”[x] At such moments the apparent openness of the interrogative form really masks a coerciveness; the gesture of language becomes duplicitous, doubled.
12. At other times the entire dialogue between Connie and Arnold breaks down into questions:
“[…]How about it?”
“Where’re we going?”[xi]
Such questions aren’t rhetorical, but they’re rubbery, gummed up with contractions and inflections, material ejected from the speakers into the increasingly saturated material of the text. In fact, to the reading eye, the unpronounced punctuation of the question mark feels like Art’s typically excessive flourish which forces existing space to make room for new material. It’s by this principle of super-saturation of reality by Art which allows Arnold to literally write on the air: “And he drew an X in the air […] After his hand fell back to his side the X was still in the air, almost visible.”[xii]
13. The final mode of Arnold’s language is the hypothetical threat—and this, too, marks his language as continuous with the material of his body, which is also both a fiction and a threat. : “If the place got lit up with fire, honey, you’d come runnin’ out into my arms, right into my arms an’ safe at home—like you knew I was your lover and’d stopped fooling around.” Delivering the threat, for Arnold, also means delivering an imagined, fictive scene, itself collaged from pop references; listening to this threat, Connie “somehow recognized […]the echo of a song from last year.” [xiii]
14. This accumulation of duplicitous forceful language, a beguiling, sonorous material which is both continuous and stitched together, charged with reference, gesture and inflection, prepares us for the crisis of the story, where violence becomes entirely sonic. Connie provokes Arnold to enter her house by picking up the phone, but the intrusion is rendered not in terms of a scene of violence but in terms of what she hears:
“Something roared in her ear, a tiny roaring, and she was so sick with fear that she could do nothing but listen to it—the telephone was clammy and very heavy and her fingers groped down to the dial but were too weak to touch it. She began to scream into the phone, into the roaring. She cried out, she cried for her mother, she felt her breath start jerking back and forth in her lungs as if it were something Arnold Friend was stabbing her with again and again with no tenderness. A noisy sorrowful wailing rose all about her and she was locked inside it the way she was locked inside this house.”[xiv]
15. Art in its purest moment, as pure, sonorous material, is also at its most violent. It does not communicate but coerces—“she could do nothing but listen to it”. Its stabbing, with no tenderness, releases bodily fluid—Connie is described as “wet” and having a wet back for the rest of the story. In this sense, Connie is saturated, even supersatured with Art. Arnold speaks in the false notes of Art when he makes a solemn-sounding declaration of Art’s permanent primacy in her life: “Arnold Friend said, in a gentle-loud voice that was like a stage voice, “The place where you came from ain’t there any more, and where you had in mind to go is cancelled out.”[xv] As he literally directs Connie’s activities for the remainder of the story, the narration notes, “His words were not angry but only part of an incantation.”[xvi] Art’s total, violent victory here is a result of its duplicity—a making-material of its occult force.
16. The famous final passage of the story stresses both Art’s falsehood and its uncanny contiguity, its absolute, renovating contact with the figure of the Artist, as a vision opens up before Connie of Art’s limitless vista—a vista available to her eyes because they have been converted to Art, by Art:
“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.”[xvii]
17. I’ve suggested that “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is an emblem for Art’s occult methods of collage, its contagious contiguity, and its violent power. Infected myself by the potency of Art, I’d like to argue that the story is not an allegory of Art, for allegory is that form which makes comparisons but keeps its distance, but an alchemical space in which one proto-Artist’s seduction by Art opens a textual aperture from which Art’s uncanny, coercive material can flow into the laps of adolescent and college-aged readers, thanks to the filthy complicit technologies of the syllabus and the anthology.
18. Such infection only replicates the infection by which this story came to be in our aging, filthy world. Anthology-readers know from the footnotes (and Wikipedia-readers from various entries) that Oates’s story is infested with origin myths: Oates wrote the story in response to a Life magazine story about a serial killer (“The Pied Piper of Tuscon”) preying on Bobby Soxers, as well as in response to the figure of Bob Dylan and also in response to his song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” referenced in a dedication and in the crucial last paragraph of the story. It’s not so much that Dylan is Arnold Friend or a serial killer as that Art works like and moves through violence—that Art’s attributes are falseness and prettiness, that Art’s own medium is violence, that Art’s destination is death, and that Art is also the same as Death, as both are “so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.”
19. This supersaturated fluid—Art– drains from media into Oates, from Oates into her story, then drains out of the story and into readers like blood from a wound, either to pool and subside there or to force a violent aperture and drain elsewhere, replicating itself on increasingly more tissuey papers in increasingly more expensive anthologies, or else dispersing itself wantonly across the paradoxically single-yet-multiple fetid sheet of the Internet, itself a model (and vehicle) of radical, contagious collage and contiguity. That’s where Art’s going, and where it has been.
[i] Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Fiction, ed. James H. Pickering. 12th edition. New York: Longman, 2010. 1020.
[ii] Oates, 1020.
[iii] Oates, 1020.
[iv] Oates, 1023.
[v] Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Kafka, Toward a Minor Literature. Dana Polan, translator. Theory and History of Literature 30 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986)5.
[vi] Oates, 1025.
[vii] Oates, 1026.
[viii] Oates, 1026.
[ix] Oates, 1025.
[x] Oates, 1029.
[xi] Oates ,1027
[xii] Oates, 1028.
[xiii] Oates, 1030.
[xiv] Oates, 1032.
[xv] Oates, 1032.
[xvi] Oates, 1033.
[xvii] Oates, 1033.