Deep American Horror: Joyce Carol Oates & David Fincher

Joyce Carol Oates, A Book of American Martyrs
Joyce Carol Oates, A Book of American Martyrs

Just read an interesting piece in The New York Review of Books by Ruth Franklin, author of the recent biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. (I was drawn to the sensationalist headline: ‘A Deep American Horror Exposed‘.) The piece is a review of Joyce Carol Oates‘ new work,  A Book of American Martyrs, a novel that explores the troubled inner life of an anti-abortion activist is driven to murder in the name of his cause.

This is not the first time that Oates’ writing has ventured into pressing contemporary issues. As Franklin remarks, “Oates’s fiction has confronted some of the most morally troubling episodes in the recent American past,” and cites Black Water (1992) and the recent Carthage (2014) as prominent examples. What is significant about A Book of American Martyrs, for Franklin, is its ability to frame social issues with an attention not just to their complexity, but to politically and economically disenfranchised groups: “Like much of Oates’s other recent work, it is clearly an attempt to speak for ‘those unable to speak for themselves’—the uneducated white working class.”

Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith in Zodiac (dir. David Fincher, 2007).
Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith in Zodiac (dir. David Fincher, 2007).

I also happened across a reappraisal of David Fincher‘s Zodiac. I consider Fincher to be one of the finest filmmakers working today. His films have an acute ability to unnerve and unsettle me. From early movies like Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999) to recent titles like The Social Network (2010) and Gone Girl (2014), Fincher captures better than anyone the eroding effects of nihilism and alienation on the contemporary Western landscape.

Zodiac (2007) dramatises the real-life search for the ‘Zodiac’ serial killer, an anonymous figure who terrorised San Francisco in the 1960s and early 1970s. Writing for IndieWire, Vikram Murthi observes that “the film depends on an abiding sense of melancholy, the sadness that comes from searching for answers and just coming up short every time. […] The melancholy in Zodiac comes from a very American conception of professional dedication, how the futile search for closure ultimately becomes the only dispenser of meaning in a chaotic world.”

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