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The Rise of Life on Earth by Joyce Carol Oates

By Pamelascott





PAGES: 135


YEAR: 1991



Selected by The New York Times Book Review as one of the most notable books of 1991, Joyce Carol Oates’s The Rise of Life on Earth is a memorable portrait of one of the “insulted and injured” of American society. Set in the underside of working-class Detroit of the ’60s and ’70s, this short, lyric novel sketches Kathleen Hennessy’s violent childhood–shattered by a broken home, child-beating, and murder–and follows her into her early adult years as a hospital health-care worker. Overworked, underpaid, and quietly overzealous, Kathleen falls in love with a young doctor, whose exploitation of her sets the course of the remainder of her life, in which her passivity masks a deep fury and secret resolve to take revenge.


People made false estimates of her, how was she to blame. Rarely did she lie. She was too proud to lie. Nor even to compose her face in an artful manner to deceive.


JCO uses a somewhat cold, distant narrator for The Rise of Life on Earth. Kathleen’s tragic tale is told in a neutral, almost chilling voice. The narration reminded me of someone just repeating facts without letting feelings get in the way. I’ve not really read any fiction where the narrator is so distant from the chapters and doesn’t attempt to create any emotion. It reminded me a little of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I expected the detached narration to create a lack of emotion but that’s not the case. The emotion is still there. If anything, the detached narrator heightens the impact.

The Rise of Life on Earth is one of JCO’s earliest works. At just over 130 pages I classify it as a novella. I read it in one sitting in less than an hour. JCO packs a punch in such a short space of time. The Rise of Life on Earth is an example why JCO is one of my favorite writer’s. When she’s good she’s really fucking good.

I was moved by Kathleen’s plight and the tragic path her life took. JCO has you on her side from the start. The shocking opening of The Rise of Life on Earth deals with Kathleen surviving a brutal beaten at the hands of her drunken father. These events are even more shocking because of the distant narrator JCO uses. The narrator describes awful, bloody violence as if they were sharing a recipe for chocolate chip cookies. The shocking opening of The Rise of Life on Earth concludes with Kathleen murdering her own sister to shut her up while their father smashes the house up in a drunken rage. When Kathleen repeatedly smashes her sister’s head on the floor I was hooked. I felt pity for Kathleen despite what she did to her sister. I felt she wasn’t really responsible for what happened.

JCO is able to elicit sympathy for Kathleen all the way through The Rise of Life on Earth. She is tragic figure. She survives a terrible experience but is marked her father’s actions forever. There is sense of hopelessness about her, a feeling that things just aren’t going to end well. I usually hate fiction where you know it’s all going to come to a tragic end. This sense of doom and gloom wouldn’t work in a full length novel but works just fine for a novella.

The ending of The Rise of Life on Earth packs as much of a punch as the opening. Kathleen is pregnant and has been abandoned by her lover. She takes drastic action to rid herself of the problem. I felt sick to my stomach. JCO points out Kathleen’s bleak future from this shocking moment in a few lines that left me stunned.

I thought The Rise of Life on Earth was great. JCO’s talent as a writer shines in this short, stunning piece of writing. The sense of gloom that resonates throughout would not work with a full length novel but works perfect in a short novella. Kathleen reminded me a lot of M.R in Mudwoman that I finished a few days ago.



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