Most books offer escape tunnels. They enclose microcosms; little worlds designed to give us the happy endings we so desperately seek in our lives. Perfect stories with perfect endings. Characters that are free to do everything we cannot do. Characters that embody our wondering and idyllic spirit. But what can we do when reality invades our most private and intimate spaces? How can we cope with sadness, disillusionment and tragedy when present even in literature, our escape tunnel?
All these being considered, I believe Daddy Love is a disturbing novel. A disturbing novel written by a very good author. Disturbing due to its theme and technique. Disturbing because it is real and does not hide anything. Because it is harsh and does not take care of our feelings.
Joyce Carol Oates wrote the story of thousands of families throughout the world, since, unfortunately, kidnapping rates are quite high nowadays. The phenomenon of abduction is still present in our modern societies. It still destroys children and decimates families. It is part of our reality. And what Oates did was to include it in our most idyllic fantasies, intriguing adventures and happy endings; in literature. But she did not simply narrate the story of a five-year-old boy who was kidnapped in a parking lot, while he was with his mother. She voiced all the four characters directly involved in the story: the mother, the father, the child and the abductor. All victims. All aggressors. All with multiple personalities; multiple masks and roles they have to act out perfectly.
Dinah. The mother. The wife. The character who welcomes us into the novel. The first perspective. We see a young mother and wife. A wife loving and admiring her husband, In such ways you are bounded with another. The connection with the man was so deep, and the connection through the child, she could not ever separate herself from them. (24)
But we also see a mother feeling guilty and fighting with her own womanhood. A typical woman who stopped carrying about herself after she became a mother. A typical woman trying to silence her self, her womanhood: Now, there was never a time when she was only Dinah. Now, she was Mommy whose name happened to be ‘Dinah’ ‒ but this wasn’t the most important part of her identity. Does a woman go a little crazy, having a baby? Do you get used to the baby? Do you want to get used to it? (34) Motherhood and womanhood. How do these coexist after giving birth? It is obvious which one becomes important and which one is neglected. Unfortunately, the societies we live in expect women not to complain about their lost femininity. They expect women to cherish their babies the minute they start breathing. No matter of the fears, the doubts, the solitude and all the inner conflicts.
Eventually, Dinah, the woman and the wife, is silenced. She completely becomes the mother from the moment her femininity is destroyed in the accident. She becomes a pitiful broken thing with half a face scraped off (31) but also a wounded lioness, whose rage turns against everyone and everything, including her womanhood.
However, towards the end of the novel she becomes an aggressor because she desires too much to reunite the family, to erase all those years of sufferance and pain, and to start reliving their family life, as it was before being hunted down by the abductor. She so badly wants to recover her family that she does not seem to understand how much they have changed and how impossible and tiring it is to try to return to their previous life.
Wit. The father. The husband. The man whose family is destroyed in an instant; whose child is abducted and whose wife is severely injured. A man whose stability is shattered by another male figure: His sexual being, the very essence of his soul, had been obliterated at the time of his son’s abduction. His sense of himself as an individual with some degree of control over his life had vanished utterly. His fatherhood, his manhood, his dignity. Another man, a predator, had taken his son (239) and his wife.
A man with a wounded ego who has not only to find his son and take care of his wife, but also to regain his masculinity. And he does so but in the arms of another woman. He needs her femininity (since Dinah has lost hers), her freshness, her not being connected to this ugly and shameful part of his existence. He needs all these to re-become Wit, the man.
Robbie. Gideon. Son. Both victim and aggressor. He started out as Robbie, a bright five-year-old boy who lived a happy life with his parents. Then one day his Mommy let go of his hand in that parking lot and another man took him. He was abducted. Taken away from his mother’s side, put into a casket, humiliated, continuously punished, abused ‒ physically, emotionally and sexually. Yet he survived. At the cost of his rebirth and his accepting the new identity imposed on him:
After about twenty minutes, Daddy Love had a glimpse of something moving beneath the shed. The sun had shifted in the sky to afternoon. It was a humid-hot August day in New Jersey. Daddy Love smiled to see the boy’s little head appear from beneath the shed like the head of a baby being born. There was magic in this! Daddy Love had summoned the child to return to him, to obey him, and the child was complying.
With difficulty the child dragged himself out from beneath the shed. He was covered in dirt. Seeing Daddy Love in the lawn chair about twelve feet away, he began to crawl toward him like a broken little animal.
It was the most beautiful sight. (132)
A new day, a new beginning. Robbie’s muddy rebirth. The moment when he completely let go of his Mommy’s hands and became the Son. Daddy Love’s Son but also Gideon. His escape mask. As Son he was obedient, he was the victim of his Daddy’s authoritative love. As Gideon he was changing places. He was now the aggressor and he liked to feel all that power in his hands. He began to vandalize houses, to set them on fire only to run away from Son: Son had survived. But as a worm survives making itself small, twisted, flat. Son was not Gideon. Son said to Daddy Love ‘Yes, Daddy. I love you Daddy’. Gideon said to Daddy Love ‘Yes Daddy’. But thinking his own (mutinous) thoughts (164).
Chester Cash. The Preacher. Daddy Love. The abductor. The hunter, yet the victim of his intricate and baffled mind. The man with a special mission. The only one to see the truth; to face the unfaceable: For we dare not gaze into the sun. For the sun will blind us. It is the Preacher who gazes into the sun, and risks harm for the sake of the faithful (39).
He easily disguises himself in Chester Cash (the handsome man who is adored by women) and the Preacher, embarked upon a (secret, thrilling) pilgrimage, utterly unguessed at by others (51). Yet, he prefers to be Daddy Love and to share his passionate, pure and divine love with all the children that need to be rescued: You’re safe with me now, son. God has sent me to you. Not a moment too soon! She was an impure woman, the female you were entrusted to. She was your way in. But only in. Daddy Love is your destiny. Daddy Love will be both daddy and mommy to you. From this first day and forever. Amen. (63)
His oath. His promise. His vision. His destruction of other people’s lives. Or salvation, depending on the glasses with which one interprets reality.
[The Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc. New York, 2013, ISBN: 978-0-8021-2099-1, NetGalley]