I thought about Diane Arbus as I read this book. Arbus’s work forces me to look at and pay attention to people I might otherwise avoid, my eyes sliding away, consigning them to the crowd. Having to recognise the subject as an individual is unsettling and sometimes unpleasant, but ultimately edifying as it compels me to acknowledge the person’s humanity and appreciate his or her difficulties and concerns.
Oates’s work affects me the same way. Here, she has taken the JonBenet Ramsey case as a springboard for exploring the dynamics of a family caught up in a similar maelstrom: a personal tragedy turned into a media circus. Normally I avoid such distractions, preferring not to waste my time on the viral coverage of some self-indulgent celebrity heading to rehab or some non-public figure jockeying for fame, so I didn’t follow the Ramsey case. But Oates is too good a writer to let me off the hook.
Now 19, Skylar Rampike narrates the events around the death of his younger sister almost ten years earlier. At six, little Bliss Rampike—born Edna Louise Rampike—is already an ice skating prodigy with several local titles on her resume and a promising future, when she is found murdered in the furnace room of the family home in a prosperous New Jersey suburb. Although a convicted pedophile confesses to the killing, Skylar himself is widely suspected of being the culprit.
Skylar does not spare himself. He was an unattractive child, with fly-away fawn-colored hair, and an even more unattractive adolescent. In his desperation to please his demanding parents, Skylar injures himself in a gymnastics class, leaving him with a permanent limp and a tendency to wear what his parents criticise as “his pain face”.
I would like to think that Betsey and Bix are parodies of awful parents. Betsey’s obsession with Bliss’s career is rooted in her own frustrated dreams of glory. Although an outline description of Betsey’s actions would sound like the stereotype of the worst of stage mothers, or the recently celebrated Tiger Mom, Oates fills in this image with emotion and self-deception. Bix may be idolised by his young children, but he cannot be trusted, reneging on promise after promise to his son and daughter, even as he swears that they are what matter most to him. Behind Bix’s bluster, too, are shadows of uncertainty and baffled regret, as he consistently mispronounces clichés and foreign tags.
Betsey and Bix are not parodies, unfortunately, in spite of some reviewers' complaints that they are not sufficiently complex. Too many parents believe they can lie to children and control their futures without repercussions. Such parents don’t see their children as independent beings with their own hopes and fears and dreams, but rather as extensions of themselves. Their tragedy, then, is when these parents find that the love and devotion they assumed was theirs by right is not, in fact, forthcoming.
Skylar’s voice as narrator is perfectly pitched as a small child describing outings with his mummy and daddy, as an awkward pre-teen at boarding school experiencing friendship and romance for the first time, and as a thoroughly alienated adolescent. This is Skylar’s story and it has to do with what connection such a damaged soul can find in our fractured and selfish world.