16 year old Katya Spivak and 68 year old Marcus Kidder undertake an alchemical journey in Joyce Carol Oates’ A Fair Maiden. Katya is from an impoverished, fractured gambling clan in Pine Barrens and Marcus is from an old extremely wealthy well-connected local family. Both are visiting Bayhead Harbour for the summer, like the hundreds of stinging jellyfish washed onto the Jersey shore in squalls. Katya is nannying with a new-money family that Marcus refers to as the Mayflies and Marcus is visiting his family’s old summer place from his home in New York, and perhaps his wealthy cultured trust-fund family has descended from the Mayflower.
These two meet when Marcus recognises his soul mate in Katya and woos her with a blend of personal charm, renaissance-style talents, autocratic but well-bred manner, and the borrowed allure of family wealth and position. Katya is drawn into the liaison secure that she possesses a strong bargaining chip in her sexuality and youth.
This is the card she plays initially, but Marcus’ desire for her goes beyond elderly loneliness or sexuality, and she flounders when she finds herself longing for connection and to express her own creativity. Marcus offers her money for modelling, and wanting to do better for herself than whatever Pine Barrens offers, she agrees. Katya is flattered, wary, greedy for the money Marcus pays her and which her feckless gambling mother begs for.
JCO portrays an interesting character in Marcus with his abandoned potential: the young tenor voice, musical composition, his children books, his detailed illustrations and portraits, his beautiful and strange glass fossil flowers, his film star relationships and his apparent yearning for something beyond this and quite sure his money can buy it. His creativity has not been enough, he longs for the mystery at the heart of the rose.
Katya’s world where life’s actions are throws of the dice is already also one of intoxication and intemperance. Marcus carefully tempers her wine when she sneaks out to visit him at night and model, building her up to the ultimate planned intoxication but Katya’s cousin Roy, fresh from prison and setting up his own drug dealing business to take him beyond Pine Barrens, comes once more into Katya’s world when Marcus impatiently pushes her forward too quickly one night wanting to sketch her nude.
Roy (another word for king) and that’s how Marcus refers to himself as she flees him that night: “Katya! The offer – the King – will be waiting for you”. There is explicit textual offer here to look at this story as fairy tale, perhaps Beauty and The Beast, however the references to intemperance (in money and substance) and the attempts by both Katya and Marcus to wrest some meaning or value from life’s materials had me thinking of Alistair Crowley and the alchemical journey for the philosopher’s stone.
JCO has woven a complex and textually tight story with lots of potential markers to explore which gives it depth and makes for a very satisfying read. Although the two main characters are portrayed as fairly complex and, in Marcus ’case, with a very busy life, the story revolves not on character or plot but on the issue of our search for value and meaning, and when we cannot find it, the human drive to attempt to create it out of our actions.
Before Katya’s final act for Marcus, done for love rather than money, she feels attachment for her young charges. When Katya first went to Bayhead nannying, her mother warned her against becoming attached to stranger’s children, and indeed Katya’s mother seems totally unattached to her own children. Katya finds love for the young children she has looked after and, far more dangerously for her, the charming and somewhat pathetic Marcus Kidder. Perhaps as a result of this access to love, Katya sees herself running, leaping across the stinging jellyfish tentacles on the Jersey shore before she goes to the dying Marcus.
Review by Tania.