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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Review: “Babysitter,” by Joyce Carol Oates

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And while Hannah’s plight in the novel is an easy one to sympathize with, Oates has created a character who is difficult to shadow. She has no discernible personality beyond being a privileged white woman, and she is content to look at the world through rose-colored glasses. Even her flashes of self-awareness feel performative. “Rarely do white mothers die in childbirth,” she thinks, unhelpfully, when her 4-year-old daughter falls ill. “Much more frequently, Black mothers. Can’t happen to us. No.” This statement was one of many that pulled me out of Oates’s narrative. Why would Hannah regurgitate this simplistic demographic comparison when she is not giving birth, and her daughter is no longer an infant?

Oates grants the odd, verbose chapter to other characters, including Hannah’s mysterious fling, the serial killer’s young victims and an accomplice named Ponytail. But while these add depth to the story overall, it’s Hannah’s perspective we are most invested in. And as vehicles for addressing the deeply embedded racism of 1970s suburban America, the Jarretts never rise above cliché. When Hannah tells her husband, Wes, that she’s taken a fall at a hotel — in truth, the location of her tryst — he assumes she’s been raped by her fictional rescuer. “Was he a Black man? Who found you in the stairwell?” he asks. “I seem to remember, parking attendants at the Marriott are Black.”

In plot and theme, “Babysitter” is bleak and indulgent. Still, it is nigh impossible to fault Oates’s style. She writes beautifully. Hannah’s unreliable, elliptical narrative is seductive and compelling, like following someone into a fever dream. For the first few chapters, Hannah approaches Room 6183 at the Renaissance Grand Hotel, where she’s meant to meet her lover. She is in the elevator, then back at the concierge, with the valet, en route to the hotel and then in the elevator again. Oates masterfully manipulates the narrative timeline, without losing the reader in the process. She is in no hurry to trigger the action, dropping tiny morsels of foreshadowing to keep us on our toes: “Faint whiff of formaldehyde. Hannah feels the shock of a fiery sensation up her nostrils, wires into her brain. … Like a flash it had happened, and now it is happening again.”

Yet despite her virtuosic storytelling, Oates is unable to resist spoon-feeding her readers, spelling out her points using italics and parentheses and other clunky notations. “A beautiful woman in beautiful clothes is so accustomed to being seen,” she writes in Hannah’s close-third perspective. “Her ability to see is impeded.” It is as though Oates doesn’t trust readers to reach certain conclusions on their own.

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