By Joyce Carol Oates
Fiction/Harpercollins Publishers/Paperback/432 pages/$32.10/Books Kinokuniya (str.sg/wCTP)
When Andrew Dominik’s adaptation of Oates’ Blonde (2000) hit small screens in 2022, many found it difficult to keep watching after the first 10 minutes, much less sit through its entire two hours and 46 minutes. The extended on-screen humiliation of Ana de Armas’ Marilyn Monroe was so complete, and seemed so unnecessary, that it was panned as trauma porn, gratuitous in its unredeeming depiction of a much-loved actress traumatised by fame and the many men who exploited her.
At first, Babysitter seems destined to be a variation of this theme. Once more, Oates appears to centre female experience without much love for her character. Her protagonist Hannah could be yet another iteration of Monroe, yet another woman abused and battered for no apparent reason. In over 400 pages, Oates puts her protagonist through hell.
A rape scene, in particular, is grisly and possibly one of the hardest passages this reviewer has had to read. A later rape scene is equal in its explicitness but somehow less vertiginous, possibly mirroring protagonist Hannah’s own moderated shock after having already experienced it the first time.
Thankfully, though, Oates’ refusal to pull her punches suddenly acquires meaning midway through the novel. Her relentless depiction of violence and psychological trauma is justified by a believable exploration of the uneasy coexistence of fear, detachment and the erotic during and after rape.
Hannah semi-consciously transmutes her humiliation into desire and even love as a way to force some agency into a thoroughly annihilating event. She plays it down, deluding herself, partially forgetting. Yet she is unable to break free of the experience that she, for most of the book, does not want to leave behind. Numb to her own loveless marriage, she recasts her exploitation as an affair. “I am a desirable woman. I have a right to desire,” she says.
The book begins as Hannah, a not very likeable white upper-middle class trophy wife, takes the elevator in a hotel to the 61st floor to meet an unnamed man.
Just as she is at the door of room 6183, there is a break in the narrative. Readers are immediately thrown into the deep, and it takes 50 pages or so to get the timeline of events straight, part of Oates’ attempt to capture the flurried state of Hannah’s increasingly manic inner life.
What seems to be a start of a promising affair with a strange man takes a quick turn into unexpected territory, one of violence, guilt and manipulative control. Along the way, Oates threads in a paedophilic ring and ongoing deaths of murdered children.
And just when readers think Hannah has surely hit a nadir, it gets worse for her. The veneer of calm in which she goes about taking care of her children and the house in an increasingly medicated state somehow keep the increasingly outrageous developments believable.
In her writing, Oates has elected a style that takes some getting used to, with bits of Hannah’s detached experience almost reading like stage directions or a screenplay. This effectively helps readers to visualise while allowing Hannah’s fractured mental state and seeming loss of free will to permeate through the text.
In the few moments where Oates switches to the point of view of an undertaker, she manages to capture the more brusque thoughts and coked-out thrill well. A car drive is Tarantino-esque. Some of the scenes of this man’s past and his eventual guilt, however, feel slightly inorganic to the novel, possibly added more as a plot device to bring the novel to its sure-to-be divisive ending.
Babysitter is yet another example of Oates’ daring to tread where other writers might avoid. Hannah, an essentially uninteresting character, manages to come alive, even if the choices that she makes at different junctures make sympathy for her difficult. This is an in-depth look at the randomness of human evil, and at its effects on the mind of an ordinary woman.
Borrow this book at https://go.gov.sg/babysitter.
If you like this, read: Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice McFadden (Jacaranda Books Art Music, 2021, $18.26, Books Kinokuniya (str.sg/wCTW); or borrow at https://go.gov.sg/praisesongforthebutterflies), which tells of a girl’s attempt to overcome the past after she is rescued from her 15-year servitude in a shrine.