Saturday, June 16, 2007

Mr Kenneally, You Made Me Hate Joyce Carol Oates!

Dear Mr. Kenneally: "Where are you Going, Where have you Been" by Joyce Carol Oates is a sad story about loss of innocence, teenage angst, and family. It is not about The Devil or Religion of the evility (yes, evility; not evilness, evility) of pop culture. Thanks, Snad.

Back when I started CEGEP, I had had very little exposure to critical thought. My high school was not the kind of place where critical thinking was valued. Consequently, I spent little or no time writing essays or term papers (as if we had real term papers!), and any research I needed to do was done by breaking open an encyclopedia and rearranging the words a bit. It wasn't a proud time for me, but it got me high marks.

So when we read "Where are you Going, Where have you Been?" (WAYGWHYB) in Mr Kenneally's class, I just trusted Mr Kenneally's analysis of the short story. Sure I thought it was a bit cheap of Joyce Carol Oates to name her bad guy Arnold Friend because he was "An Old Fiend"; I thought it kinda smacked of grade school composition writing. And I do remember being incredulous about Connie, the story's anti-hero, worshipping at the altar of the Rock'n'Roll Radio Show instead of Church; I thought it was a bit far-fetched. I refused to believe that Joyce Carol Oates would have spent so much of her time cramming this sad, sad story about a very scary abduction by a creepy old guy, full of religious allusions that served only to blame Connie for her own fate at Arnold's hands.

Here's the Coles Notes of the story: Connie is a pretty, vain, superficial teenager. She doesn't like her family: her mom keeps picking on her, her dad ignores her and her sister is a vision of mediocrity. Connie spends a lot of her time doing teenage things like going to the mall, listening to the radio and making out with boys. One Sunday afternoon, instead of going to Church and then a bbq with the rest of her family, Connie, like many other teens, begs out and stays home. Her family is, predictably, frustrated and disappointed in her. While Connie's at home, a creepy weirdo and his even creepier buddy drive up to the house, and force her to go with them under pains of harming her family.

The way Mr Kenneally and prettymuch every other High School curriculum treats this story is as a religious allegory about a girl who has fallen and who eventually becomes The Devil's Bride. See, Connie has rejected family and Church, and has become a self-absorbed heathen-child, running around town doing Forbidden Things with boys and worshipping the radio (Connie never misses her favourite radio show on Sunday mornings). Consequently, An Old Fiend (Arnold Friend) comes to take her away.

Point taken Mr Kenneally, my Irish Catholic teacher at my secular-but-secretly-Catholic CEGEP: I will go to Church, stay chaste and not worship false idols so that Arnold Fiend doesn't come to get me too.

Now, I re-read the story and, to me, the most interesting part of the story is that Connie willingly goes with Arnold because she doesn't want her family harmed. She sacrifices herself for her family. In the end, Connie realizes that she loves them, but it is ultimately too late for her to let them know. And, to boot, her family will never know how much Connie loved them; they will probably assume she's run off with her friends and won't think anything is wrong until she doesn't show up for a few days, and then it will be too late for them too.

The story, to me, is about alienation in the family.

I also read an interview with Joyce Carol Oates about the story. She wrote it about a serial killer in the Tucson area (The Pied Piper of Tucson). The guy was running around, abducting the girls and all the kids knew, but no one did anything about it. And, guess what, the Tucson serial killer stuffed socks in his boots to look taller, so he had an odd gait! It wasn't that Arnold Friend had cloven feet and that's why his boots stood out at a strange angle, it was because he stuffed them with socks!

So Mr Kenneally, while Arnold Friend was a fiend, he wasn't the fiend you thought he was.

He was a much scarier one.

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