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Joyce Carol Oates: Wonderland

Critics have, of course, noted the similarities between this book and the book from which it gets its title, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book which apparently had a lot of influence on Oates when she was a child. Jesse’s adventures through the strange landscape of the United States can, indeed, be seen as somewhat resembling, in broad terms, Alice’s adventures. Like Alice, Jesse is often unsure of where he is and where he is going. But these parallels can also be stretched too far.

Jesse is born Jesse Harte. His father has failed economically and takes a gun to his family, killing them all, except for Jesse, who is wounded, before killing himself. He is adopted by Dr. Karl Pedersen and takes his surname. The Pedersen family are all both geniuses (or near-geniuses) and obese. Jesse tries to emulate the doctor but is kicked out of the family when he tries to help the alcoholic Mrs. Pedersen escape her husband’s domination. However, he still goes to medical school and, with the help of a brilliant doctor and by marrying the daughter of one of his professors, he becomes a successful neurosurgeon. By this time, he has taken the name of his grandfather, Vogel (the fact that it is the German for bird, is clearly not accidental). But, like other Oates’ characters, he carries the baggage of his early life. His marriage is unhappy, he cannot relate to his children and he has a failed love affair. In short, things do not work out.

Critics have condemned this novel for its unpleasantness, which range from the normal medical horrors to cannibalism, and include overeating, the Kennedy assassination, castration and abortion. Oates has never sought to spare her readers from life’s nasty side and she certainly does not do so here. But if there is a criticism here, it is that there is not really a redeeming character in the book. However, if you are prepared to accept that, this book is still a very novel, maybe not as good as its predecessor but still well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1971 by Vanguard Press