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An impoverished childhood seems better to Laney than her probable future as a woman. Watching her mother drift from man to man or being beaten by her lovers, Laney is persuaded sex reduces women to sluts and men to brutes.

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Miss Oates has remained fascinated by poverty as a form of exclusion and self-exclusion from the ificant world But her social awareness surfaces in "Childwold" as a poor kid's anxiety.

Laney, taken to a gallery by wealthy Kasch, thinks: "Everything in this place has meaning, people have come here to experience the meaning, they know it is here, it has been deliberately and lovingly created and so they have come here, have journeyed here, knowing they will not be disappointed. An impoverished childhood seems better to Laney than her probable future as a woman.

Watching her mother drift from man to man or being beaten by her lovers, Laney is persuaded sex reduces women to sluts and men to brutes. Kasch, who seems so tender in conversation, sees sex with Laney as violence: "That night I grappled with her and overcame her and snapped her fragile bones in my heated love.

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I tore at her mouth with my own. I tore at her tiny breasts, her thighs. But reviving his appetites only inflames his rage.

He murders one of his rivals so brutally he goes mad. Miss Oates's women come of age and get sexually mugged; her best men are turned by sheer excitement into ever-ready fists. Childhood is the fragile barrier against the future as a have-not or a killer.

The novel's tight Oedipal triangle opens into a triple alliance against age and aggression as each person tries to turn the biological clock back towards innocence. Laney's mother wants to bear children to narrow the world to 's room.

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Laney starves herself to stop her menstrual cycle and prolong her childhood. Kasch in his insanity is harmless, nonsexual, helpless. Outside of sex, Laney and Kasch may connect. Laney calls Kasch back from his insanity: "Bearded, gaunt, sickly-pale hair colorless as dead hair, eyes in shadow.

The modern novel

Miss Oates's verbal brilliance bares characters who are driven by blind impulse through the pitifully few parts they can play. I think she rhapsodizes the incomprehensibility of their lives too lovingly. She virtually ple for their blindness as a way of not seeing how little real mystery there is in lives that seem predestined to be unhappy. Fate could have written this primal drama of mother, daughter and rich man.

And the novel's major flaw is exactly an almost superhuman, torrential flow of words that washes out the individual voice and often makes it difficult to tell who is saying what. The rapid-fire flashbacks that open the novel are its least effective part, offering little more than jumbled scenes of violence recollected with nostalgia.

But "Childwold" is more brilliant that its beginning. Protective, sacrificial love as a weapon against greater despair has gone out of fashion, particularly in the novel. But Joyce Carol Oates has made it new again.

This insistent writer can call us back, through her dense psychological and social detail, to rural America in a spiritual and economic depression. The characters of "Childwold" inspire the terror and recognition once aroused by those monumental "lonelies" of William Faulkner and Carson McCullers.

The world-wide literary novel from early 20th century onwards

Passing over the current sense of sex as a matter of problem-solving, "Childwold" turns back the clock toward a tradition in which life is decipherable only through the code of compassion. Miss Oates has mastered that code and penetrated the morbidity of her view of life as a life sentence.

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