He Lives Inside My Mouth And Tells Me What To Say

This week’s Saturday Book Club post focuses on one of two books authored by Joyce Carol Oates that I read last year.  I’ll start by saying that the premise was very intriguing, but the overall execution could have been better.  I wouldn’t say I was necessary let down by the novel, but it wasn’t entirely what I expected when I initially picked it up.


Image courtesy of booksarethenewblack.com.

Expensive People by Joyce Carol Oates

243 pages (including afterword)

The novel opens with the following:

I was a child murderer.

I don’t mean child-murderer, though that’s an idea.  I mean child murderer, that is, a murderer who happens to be a child, or a child who happens to be a murderer.

This is just the type of book I love!  The novel is, like most things Oates writes, very dark.  As the above excerpt indicates, Expensive People is written from the point of view of a man who committed murder at a very early age.  He actually isn’t that old as he’s writing this “memoir” of sorts … I can’t remember for certain if he ever specifies his exact age, but he alludes to the fact that he’s either late teens (18 or 19) or early to mid-20s (20-25).  Most likely he’s younger than I am now.

As a narrator, he’s completely unreliable … The majority of the novel is told in flashbacks from his life as a 10-year-old boy living in an upper middle class suburban neighborhood with his mother, a gorgeous and worldly Russian author, and his father, a sometimes bumbling but generally good-natured businessman.  He remembers things as he wants to … So much so that the reader is often questioning whether or not events actually happened, people and places actually existed, etc.

Joyce Carol Oates does an excellent job of bringing the characters and scenery to life, and the novel succeeds as a chilling look at the darker side of suburbia.  Despite the premise, Expensive People isn’t a thriller.  It’s just … Sad.  A lot of the action centers around the narrator’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his mother.  His most burning desire at the tender age of 10 is to be noticed by his mother … Truly loved by her.  Instead, he is often cast aside as she attempts to climb the social ladder, preferring to hobnob with other affluent suburbanites and writers.  As if this weren’t bad enough, she is often physically absent as well … The narrator mentions she has left the family a few times during his short life in an attempt to flee her marriage and responsibilities as a mother.

My main complaint about this book is the overuse of flowery language.  While Oates writes beautifully, sometimes this type of description detracts from the story.  Additionally, since this is told in first person, the narrator often rambles on endlessly about random things that have nothing to do with anything.  These sections could easily have been omitted (or, at the very least, heavily edited), and the story would be just as good, if not better.

There is a short story (supposedly written by the narrator’s mother) inserted about halfway through the novel as well, but I actually really enjoyed that.  Joyce Carol Oates is known for her short stories (check out my personal favorite, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”), and the one included in this novel, “The Molesters,” was both disturbing and intriguing.  While one might think that a short story in the middle of a novel would take the focus off the main plot, this actually provided some insight into both the mother and the narrator.  (Or, at least, it did according to him as he proceeds to list out all the ways in which the story affected him and was meant to be “symbolic” and all that.)

I will probably reread Expensive People in the future.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to others, though if you’re a fan of Joyce Carol Oates’ other work, I’d definitely say it’s worth a look.  It’s not that it’s a bad book (though, as I mentioned earlier, I was slightly disappointed by the way things played out), it’s just not something I think would appeal to everyone.

I would give Expensive People THREE STARS.  If this was the first book I’d read by Oates, it may have received a higher rating … But I think she’s written better things.  Overall, though, the book was enjoyable and thought provoking.


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