A while ago, I noted that one of E. F. Benson's horror stories suggested that the life of a strictly commercial writer could, in effect, take on the contours of the Gothic. Much more recently, Stephen King's Misery (1987) reimagined the author/fan relationship in terms of murderous possessiveness and entitlement. And now, Joyce Carol Oates' weirdly perfunctory Jack of Spades conjures up, among other things, an author in competition with Stephen King, in a novel that reads like an inverted Misery: Andrew J. Rush, genteel (theoretically) author of bestselling detective novels, suddenly finds himself dragged into court by C. W. Haider, an elderly eccentric woman with a history of nuisance suits filed against famous authors--including King. Haider insists that these authors break into her house and steal her stories; much to Rush's astonishment, once he, er, breaks into her house and looks at her writing, Haider really has anticipated many bestselling novelists' plots, his own and King's included. What does this mean?
Jack of Spades is not particularly original and, trickily enough, that's key to its point. (Deliberately derivative fiction is hard to finesse.) The mental split between Andrew J. Rush, "the gentleman's Stephen King" (loc. 54), and the nasty Jack of Spades, who churns out schlocky and sexist horror novels, evokes Jekyll and Hyde; there's a black cat wandering around who is straight out of Poe (as Rush thinks to himself); and Rush's steady deterioration into alcoholism and writer's block suggests King's The Shining (albeit without the Overlook Hotel). Moreover, Oates subtitles the novel "A Novel of Suspense," which explicitly signals its status as "genre fiction"--and yet, it's not published under the pseudonyms "Rosalind Smith" or "Lauren Kelly," names that Oates used to market her, well, suspense novels. This, too, has yet another real-life parallel, in the form of Stephen King/Richard Bachmann. (King, appropriately enough, haunts the book.) These doublings and triplings all raise questions about the relationship between marketability and originality, originality and authorship, and, indeed, gender and originality.
The very identities "Andrew J. Rush" and "Jack of Spades" are market-driven: the reader who picks up a book by one author expects the type of novel to follow. Rush is a writer of "entertaining murder mysteries" (loc. 117); Jack writes "noir" (loc. 117). In that sense, both identities rest on repetition, each churning out a specific kind of text to suit the demands of a specific audience. Rush is acutely aware of target demographics, prestigious vs. non-prestigious critical venues, sales, and so forth. He is also invested in his books as objects, multiplying like rabbits: his basement includes "floor-to-ceiling translations of books by Andrew J. Rush" and all of his "first edition US and UK books are in built-in mahogany shelves in the living room, proudly displayed" (loc. 199). These are "handsome, proper, hardcover books" against which he is "customarily photographed" (loc. 199). One notes that the translations, signs of his global success, are considered relatively worthless; it is only the Anglophone audience that counts, and only the English-language books are considered luxury commodities in his eyes. Haider, Rush's double, only has self-published editions of her works on her ratty shelves, but her library is full of truly valuable first editions--a Frankenstein that "was well beyond the price of my entire 'first edition' library at Mill Brook House" (loc, 1495), alongside autographed first editions by everyone from Algernon Blackwood to Bram Stoker. Significantly, Haider's library consists of books that are not only valuable commodities, but, more importantly, core texts in the Gothic/horror tradition: where Rush poses in front of books with his own name on the cover, an apparently self-authored author, Haider surrounds herself with classics that, with their signatures, almost suggest an apostolic laying-on of hands.
This is all the more important because, faced with Haider's library, Rush concedes that "[i]n later years it has become the possessing/displaying of books that mattered to me, and not the actual reading of any book, however masterly" (loc. 1495)--far from being well-acquainted with classic or even contemporary fiction, Rush admits that he has no clue as to the identity of Ivy Compton-Burnett, and has never cracked a book by Iris Murdoch (loc. 1495). Rush, that is, is the stereotypical "bad" creative writing student, invested in his own work but ignorant of--and incurious about--his literary predecessors. For him, books are interchangeable with any other collectible, and are more important as part of his self-presentation than as literary heritage. Moreover, that he doesn't know two women writers is important, for, as he soon realizes, "she'd had inspired ideas, brilliant ideas for mystery-horror novels, but had been (evidently) incapable of executing these ideas as others had, with enormous commercial success" (loc. 1707). Rush has not plagiarized Haider, but he is not original, any more than (here) King, Peter Straub, and John Updike are original. No Romantic cult of the autonomous author here; everyone is derivative, even when they're not consciously engaged in deriving. These male novelists have all been intellectually scooped by a woman writer whose work remains marginal, if not entirely invisible. In effect, Oates suggests that Haider's imaginative powers were far more fecund than all of these bestselling novelists put together (Updike and King are not what you would call similar novelists), and yet her craft--the "execution"--was insufficient for the literary marketplace. As even Rush has to ask himself, what does this suggest about how Haider's work (none of which we get to see) ought to be judged?
But Oates' point is more complicated than just this male-female gender binary, for as we discover by the end of the novel, it was Andrew's wife Irina who was by far the more promising novelist as a student, and it was and is Irina who contributes materially to Andrew's books. The crude, stream-of-consciousness prose that emerges from "Jack of Spades"--a novelist "2 Dark 4 Me," insists "Stephen King" (loc. 2487)--is itself heavily derivative; Rush fantasizes that future novels could be advertised as "Blend DNA of Stephen King, Mickey Spillane, Clive Barker, Jack Ketcham, Chuck Palahniuk plus sheer gut-wrenching carnage" (loc. 2689). (This is a nicely over-the-top parody of the "X meets Y" marketing strategy.) But it's also free of Irina's input, whereas Rush's work is actually heavily infused with Irina's prose, ranging from "lively and surprising" plots (unlike Rush's mediocre ideas) to better "dialogue" (loc. 1307). Rush's terror at the plagiarism accusation, then, actually emerges from his anxieties about his own collaborative narratives, in which the female half of the collaboration remains suppressed. In that sense, this really is Jekyll and Hyde--for those who haven't read that novel in some time, Jekyll's attempt to create purely good and purely evil selves, the latter enabling the former to enjoy the worst pleasures without any of the guilt attached, fails because Jekyll remains a mix of the two. Hence his eventual loss of control over Hyde's manifestations. In this case, "Jack of Spades" Is Rush's fantasy of purely masculine authorship--which, pointedly, is too much for Stephen King!--which relieves him of his unhappiness about needing his wife's contributions in order to succeed in the market. As fantasies go, it's terribly unoriginal (take six Palahniuks and call me in the morning...), which again reminds us that Rush is hardly some Romantic genius. Jack of Spades is what happens when Irina fails to intervene; moreover, Jack of Spades, whom his daughter describes as "sick macho" (loc. 835) and "macho-sadist trash" (loc. 2463), is also the part of Rush's personality that, far from being entirely apart from him, emerges in acts of murderous violence and abuse. (It occurs to me that this is actually a rather old-fashioned interpretation of gender relationships: the woman keeps the man civilized.)
What's frustrating about this book, though, is that, like Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it's very short--but unlike Strange Case, its not as tautly constructed as it needs to be. It doesn't particularly "earn" its semi-redemptive conclusion, which comes out of left field (even if, given Strange Case, one knows what has to happen), and Jack of Spades' final thoughts--"You can't. You won't. God damn your soul to hell, YOU WILL NOT" (loc. 2765)--are...bathetic. But again, this is the problem, as Jack of Spades ought to be bathetic. He isn't any good. So perhaps one should read the odd failure of plot and dialogue at the end as, yet again, a sign of what happens when Rush tries to write without his wife...