‘Joyce Carol Oates’ Review: What’s She Thinking?


It’s a modern-day tragedy that some people may know the writer Joyce Carol Oates primarily for her online presence — on social media, she has posted a picture of her foot oozing with blisters, and regularly voiced inflammatory opinions. It’s odd — and oddly fascinating — behavior for such a literary heavyweight, one whose six decades of novels, short stories, essays and more have triggered fascinating debates about the intersection of violence, sexuality, race and womanhood (among other dark, distinctly American subjects).

There’s much to chew on about the writer, now 85. Too bad the documentary “Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of Mind” only nibbles. Directed by Stig Björkman and narrated by Laura Dern, this documentary is so fixated on enshrining Oates within the canon of American literary giants that it skirts around the peculiarity and provocation of her ideas.

Björkman offers something like a glorified Wikipedia article. He identifies key moments in Oates’s life (her marriages, her upbringing in rural New York) and too cleanly links them to the books that came out of them. For instance, “Them,” Oates’s 1969 masterwork, is explained as merely a reaction to the 1967 riots in Detroit. What’s more, Björkman is uninterested in showcasing the beauty of Oates’s prose or her often risqué interests — Oates’s Marilyn Monroe novel, “Blonde,” becomes a neutered feminist statement piece rather than the abject tale of mythmaking that it is.

An extended interview with Oates is woven throughout, though the tight-lipped writer doesn’t care for confessions. If Björkman’s breakdown is annoyingly textbook, he at least allows us to bask in the writer’s uncanny presence. We look at Oates, her pursed lips and slightly dazed eyes, and can’t help but ask: What is she thinking?

Joyce Carol Oates: A Body in the Service of Mind
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on most major platforms.

POST AUTHOR: Beatrice Loayza

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