Expensive People, Joyce Carol Oates

Expensive People exposes the superficial world of suburbia. Set in a small privileged community of the 1960s, it offers the easy-rolling and confessional narrative of Richard Everett, an 18-year-old child murderer. The book begins with this confession, and Richard goes on to say that when his memoir is done, he will kill himself.

We find out that his parents are self-involved, and Richard spends much of his time as a child closed in his own thoughts, observing his surroundings, spying on his parents. He is fixated on his mother, Nada, an egotistical novelist and short story writer, and is afraid of his father, a successful, loud and often drunk, happy-go-lucky businessman. Richard’s spyings help to reveal his mother’s character: She despises her life but pretends because she feels like outside the priviledged world, life is worthless. Her real personality reveals itself only in her stories, which Richard is not allowed to read. However, he reads one one day – during one of his mother’s bouts of disappearance to attain freedom. It’s an “artistic” story about a 6-year-old girl’s understanding of an incidence of molestation. This story expands upon the book’s theme of sexuality. Perhaps Nada finds sexuality in some ways as grotesque as Richard does when he hides himself in her closet one day and overhears his mother having sex with a stranger. (The stranger later discovers him in the closet and says nothing – worse than exposing him, because this way, Richard has to live with this dreaded, disgusting secret, never getting the freedom to release his intense feelings about it.)

Another important theme is freedom. Nada tells Richard once, “Richard, I want you to be so free that you stink of it.” Richard, however, is far from free; he is trapped with his thoughts and depressed feelings he experiences imprisoned in his life with his neglecting parents. The only time he experiences freedom is during one of his bouts: one, at Johns Behemoth, his school, when he breaks into the headmaster’s office and rips out all the files, throws up and breaks everything; two, when he goes crazy in the flower bed; and three, when he secretly begins shooting at people with his rifle (and misses). He describes all these incidents as euphoric. And their result is euphoric, too: The first incident gets him expelled from the school that he hates anyway. The second incident leaves him without punishment as the cops pretend that he was looking for something in the flower bed and let him go free. The third incident leaves him without punishment because nobody finds out. In fact, Richard gets a kick of knowing that he can have so much power over others without them knowing.

In the end, Richard exerts his power over his own mother, too – the mother he is unable to control throughout the novel as she ruins his life with her lack of love for him. As Nada is about to leave again and abandon the family, he runs to the back of the house and shoots her with his rifle. She falls, and dies, and thanks to his well-thought-out ways of covering up, nobody believes that he committed the crime, even when he finally admits it. As consolation, Richard holds on to the idea that at least he had “free will,” but in the last sentence of the novel, he confesses that sometimes he’s not sure if that’s even a consolation.

We wonder, too: Is it really freedom to commit a crime that nobody believes you did when you want to come clean the most?

Like his mother, Richard is always trying to reach for this unattainable freedom. Nada’s need for freedom leads her to often shirk responsibility: She sleeps with strangers, she neglects her precocious son, she often abandons the family. Richard’s need for freedom shows the same lack of responsibility: His proclivity to destruction is expressed towards objects, other people or his own wishes for self-destruction (with food and his desire to commit suicide after he writes his memoir). To Nada, freedom was writing, as that’s when she was really herself, a very different and dark person compared to her real-life persona. And Richard’s writing, too, to him means freedom: By completing his memoir, he hopes to be finally free of his mother, of his past, of his actions. As the Catholics do (that last breath’s prayer that Nada’s parents hope sent their daughter to heaven), perhaps Richard’s memoir is his last confession before his death, a way to cleanse himself and reach heaven.

Does Richard commit suicide after this book? We aren’t sure. Because his actions and decision mimic his mother’s steps, perhaps he does. But for some reason, I have a feeling that he doesn’t. Is it that he is cowardly? No, not that. He is obese and self-loathing, sure, but free of his mother and his father, perhaps there is hope. (His father has set him up in a separate apartment and sends him a monthly allowance.) Free of his past and his life, which he releases in the memoir, perhaps he can use his precociousness and start his life anew….

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About tali2

I am a recent grad of the wonderful English major. Though I don't regret studying English one bit, I realize why my teachers, parents, friends, and imaginary mentors warned me against it: Because it leads you nowhere. But it did give me great writing skills which I hope to continue honing in this blog as I chronicle the tribulations of the terrible job hunt in the terrible job market of NYC. And I hope that my blog reminds fellow unemployed recent grads that you are not alone, inspires some hope within us, while presenting a snapshot of our lives to others who do not share the same self-imposed troubles.
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2 Responses to Expensive People, Joyce Carol Oates

  1. abby says:

    dude! write more stuff. been since, like febuary. losing wood over here…

  2. abby says:

    one of these days im sure you’ll update this thing. im hoping its soon:)

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