Joyce Carol Oates' My Sister, My Love is an ephemeral novel. By which I don't mean that it's brief; it comes in, after all, at nearly six hundred pages. But the novel's concerns--and its mode of narration, for that matter--are very much about the now. The narrator, Skyler Rampike, tells us the story of his family's rise, fall, rise, fall (etc.) in the wake of his younger sister, "Bliss" (formerly Edna Louise), who, at the tender age of four, wins an ice-skating competition...and so, becomes a celebrity. And, more importantly, makes her mother a celebrity. Until, a bit over two years later, she is apparently kidnapped, only to be found dead in the Rampike furnace room. Her death turns out to be a terrific opportunity for her mother, Betsey, who cements her own celebrity status on her daughter's corpse. Poor Skyler, meanwhile, winds up drugged, hospitalized, schlepped off to multiple schools, and ultimately relegated to a boarding house, where he happens to be writing this narrative.
Oates admits in her note that the novel "has its genesis in a notorious American 'true crime mystery' of the late twentieth century" (n.p.), which is a rather roundabout way of saying that she has modeled Bliss' "career" and fate on the case of JonBenét Ramsey. Although Oates moves Bliss' birth and death up one year from JonBenét's, she borrows the ransom note, the location where the child's body was found, part of the cause of death, and, of course, the subsequent media frenzy. (And, of course, there are the parallel names--Ramsey/Rampike, Patsy/Betsey.) Unlike the JonBenét Ramsey case, Bliss Rampike's is unofficially solved at the end, although any reader who pays close attention to the ransom note will figure out the murderer's identity well before that.
But the core of the novel is not Bliss, but the rampaging culture that produces and ultimately devours her. The novel reads like a compendium of every social evil breathlessly anatomized in every op-ed page over the past two decades. In no particular order, I counted the sexualization of children, moral panics, social climbing, megachurches, tract housing, the culture of spectacle, "syndromes," frequent litigation, the patriarchy, the medicalization of everyday life, cosmetic surgery, prescription drug abuse, modern schooling, the loss of childhood, alcoholism, adultery, religious hypocrisy, talk shows, bullying, the collapse of the nuclear family, tabloids, the Internet, self-harm, confessionalism, enrichment programs, self-help books, anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia. (I'm sure I missed a few.) Oates intends this accumulation of awfulness to signal the sheer grotesqueness of both the Rampikes and late-twentieth/early twenty-first century American culture, and, up to a point, it succeeds. Beyond that point, however, the novel turns into a satire of a satire: I found myself idly betting on what cultural horror would next pop out of the national graveyard, waving its skeletal arms and yelling "Boo!" There is nothing good about the Rampikes; even their children are pathetic instead of sympathetic. Our potential sympathy for Betsey--a thwarted ice skater dominated by her roving and parodically patriarchal husband--rapidly wanes as we watch her abandon her son and commodify her daughter, right down to the "Heaven Scent Bliss Rampike Doll" (477). As they say over on TV Tropes, the point is anvilicious: the mother, the media, and the audience joyfully collude in turning a child into a thing, a marketable object with a literal price tag. Similarly, Betsey gives the audience what it desires, the model "grieving," Christian mother, whose faith can be purchased and imitated for a reasonable price.
The most interesting thing about the novel is Skyler's confessional narrative itself. Skyler is in perpetual exile, thanks in no small part to his parents, but he is very much a child of his age. The "document," he explains, "will not be chronological/linear but will follow a pathway of free association organized by an unswerving (if undetectable) interior logic: unliterary, unpretentious, disarmingly crude-amateur, guilt-ridden, appropriate to the 'survivor' who abandoned his six-year-old sister to her 'fate' sometime in the 'wee hours' of January 29, 1997, in our home in Fair Hills, New Jersey. Yes I am that Rampike" (4-5). Skyler occasionally claims that his text is being read by an "editor," or even by someone "in a bookstore aisle" (20), which implies that he is preparing it for publication, and his description is actually a marketing ploy: the narrative's supposed lack of artfulness testifies to his identity, shoring up his tabloid-established public image as a "survivor"--but a problematic survivor. Several of the characters "quote" in this way, cobbling their self-presentation together out of pop psychology and cod sociology; this is not expressivist language, but language that reveals the speaker's cool factor. Bix and Betsey Rampike, in particular, aspire to speak other people's words, rather than deviate in the slightest from middle-class conformity. "Confession" itself becomes, at best, a form of perversely-cliched fantasy (as in the case of Gunther Rascha, who falsely confesses to Bliss' death in order to represent himself as...ick...her true beloved), at worst a method of self-construction for the highest bidder (as in Betsey's multiple memoirs and self-help books). In writing a confessional narrative, the sort of thing that eventually makes his mother a wealthy woman, Skyler seems to enmesh himself in the toils of the very culture he loathes.
What saves him, however, is that he can't do it. Despite trying to represent himself as the singular, identifiable "survivor"--"that Rampike"--he cannot sustain a coherent voice. The narrative is beset by breakdowns, mental and otherwise, that interrupt the confession. Skyler backtracks, refuses to write, tries to delete. Frequently, he writes about himself in the third person. His footnotes contest and qualify what goes on in the main text. At one point, he consigns himself literally to the footnotes: "*In a text that more accurately reflects its subject, the remainder of this narrative would consist exclusively of footnotes. For it's down here, IN FOOTNOTES, that Skyler Rampike actually lived. (And what about you, the skeptical reader? Is it painful to realize that you, too, are but a footnote in others' lives, when you had wished to imagine you were the text?)" (281) Skyler's confession fails to "work" because he initially conceives of it as a narrative of that Rampike, the boy of interest only because his sister was murdered. As such, he is mostly passive, drugged, emotionally abused by his parents; it's no wonder he conceives of himself as a footnote. (It's the Oliver Twist problem: the protagonist exists to be dragged about by other characters.)
Despite the novel's attack on the omnipresent confessional urge, it ultimately gives in to another trendy concept: closure. Skyler receives somebody's confession (as I said, the reader should have guessed when they read the ransom note), burns it, and, with the help of the novel's only sympathetic character, Pastor Bob, tentatively decides on resuming his life. Pastor Bob, bearing the physical and mental scars of a deadly error from years ago, tells the vacillating Skyler that he has refused the prospect of becoming a televangelist because "'[t]o appear on TV you must wear makeup to make you look "like yourself'"--what bullshit. Anything that isn't flesh-and-blood, eye-to-eye, it's bullshit'" (552). Pointedly rejecting everything that Skyler's family stands for, Pastor Bob chooses "belief" instead: "'For though I don't believe in much of anything I "believe" in humankind and our need to "believe" which is a need like hunger" (553). At the end, Skyler is unsure whether or not he can accept Pastor Bob's "hopes for Skyler Rampike" (561), but the final moments of the novel suggest that, at the very least, he may be discovering the possibility of his own agency. And yet, as I said, it's hard not to notice that the narrative device for getting Skyler to this point is, in fact, pop culture's vaunted "closure," celebrated by, among others, the monstrous Betsey Rampike. To me, at least, this seems a little too easy.