“Babysitter,” the new novel by Joyce Carol Oates, is violent and vile, timely and terrifying. Set in Detroit and its posh suburbs between 1976 and 1977, the novel draws on historical events and spins them into a tale of privilege and suburban ennui, pedophilia and coercive control, racism, sexism, and capitalism run amok, one that resonates powerfully with contemporary concerns.
Oates’s fiction takes its title from the moniker of a real-life serial killer, Babysitter, also known as the Oakland County Child Killer, who abducted and murdered two boys and two girls in and around Detroit and left their bodies on display in public places a few weeks after they disappeared. Several suspects, including the son of a prominent family who later committed suicide, were identified and the investigation led to a child pornography ring, but the case was never solved.
Oates relies on these historical details in her chilling story. Our “heroine,” Hannah Jarrett, is a wealthy, blonde suburban housewife who flaunts her Prada handbag and soaks up the adoration of her two young children, yet is “lonely … [and] bored.” Hannah feels at once overwhelmed by the “tyranny of the calendar”— her schedule chock-a-block with beauty maintenance appointments, board meetings and charity galas, medical appointments and school functions — and adrift, purposeless. She doesn’t have close friends and she’s detached from her husband, boorish businessman Wes, who she’s sure is cheating on her right and left, and who keeps her in the dark about his business and how he manages their money. Meanwhile, she worries that her housekeeper, Imelda, is judging her.
At a fund-raiser “in an opulent setting,” Hannah meets an enigmatic businessman who goes by the initials YK; his touch on her wrist is electrifying. When he asks her for a rendezvous at an upscale hotel, she “feels herself drawn forward inexorably” even as guilt about being a bad mother consumes her. As she rides up in the elevator to their first private meeting, Hannah thinks “she is making a serious (and possibly) irrevocable mistake that will ripple, shudder, quake through the remainder of her life and (just possibly) through the lives of her family.”
After Hannah is tortured, battered, and bruised by her lover during their second sexual encounter, Wes assumes that she has been raped by a Black parking attendant. Hannah, dazed, wracked with remorse, and afraid she will lose her children’s adulation and her posh lifestyle if her marriage ends and her infidelity is exposed, allows him to persist in his noxious delusion, with tragic consequences.
“Babysitter” is told in very short, titled chapters, some as brief as a few sentences. Many are in third person from Hannah’s perspective, but a few are in a collective first person and narrated by dead people — presumably the children Babysitter has kidnapped and slaughtered and maybe even Hannah herself. Some sections are from the perspective of Mikey K, a street kid and drug addict who works for YK, doing errands that range from delivering flowers to committing murder to disposing of bodies.
There is much to admire about “Babysitter.” Its pages are lit up by Oates’s searing rage about patriarchy’s toxic stain, the church’s enabling of and eager participation in the sexual predation of children, racism’s pernicious taint. Its characters are simultaneously repulsive and strangely sympathetic — both Hannah and Mikey do terrible things and yet we understand how insecurity, alienation, and a history of abuse make them vulnerable. Some sections are almost unbearably creepy; Oates’s ability to create a sickening sense of horror is as keen as ever.
And yet, as a whole, “Babysitter” is less enthralling or frightening than it might have been. Oates tips her hand far too early and makes her heroine not just naïve and vulnerable but downright nuts, because YK’s psychopathy and her extreme peril in his company are evident almost from the outset. A story about a compelling yet unsettling lover, the depths of whose evil is revealed only bit by bit, would have been more satisfying to read and more psychologically plausible. But by having Hannah return to a man who has assaulted her gruesomely, twice, with whom she has virtually no emotional or romantic connection, whom she condemns for his “brutal behavior: crude, coarse, punitive, sadistic …misogynistic,” and whose henchman has also attacked her sexually, Oates strains credulity to its breaking point.
Moreover, overwrought repetition burdens the narrative. “I get it!” I kept writing in the margins as yet another rant about patriarchy or passage about Hannah’s ennui and desperate need for attention and love appeared. Oates clots her pages with aphorisms about female vulnerability and male aggression as Hannah’s self-hatred is driven into our heads with numbing redundancy. YK is described as a “predator” and a “bird of prey” over and over again.
The ideological blatancy produces some stylistic infelicities. Joyce’s characteristically heavy use of italics is taken to an almost parodic extreme here, as is her reliance on verb-less sentence constructions. Ordinary English subject-verb word order is marginalized, often in favor of lonely, attenuated prepositional phrases standing in for sentences. The combination of moralistic fervor and strained style gives the book a sense of high-pitched excitement but also eventually of monotony and rhetorical thinness.
Oates’s righteous anger, her ability to invest her story with mythological resonance (surely Leda and The Swan looms), and her talent at creating eerie scenes all make “Babysitter” a worthwhile read. Harnessing the screed and subtilizing the situations could have made it a great one.
By Joyce Carol Oates
Knopf, 448 pages, $30
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.”