The 15th day of my Book Advent Calendar and the letter “O” bring me to Joyce Carol Oates, an award-winning, prolific writer. I’m recommending her most recent novel, published earlier this year.
Day 15: Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates
Andrew J. Rush is a successful, award-winning mystery writer. In secret, he also writes a series of ultraviolent noir thrillers under the pseudonym “Jack of Spades.” His dual identities exist in harmony until Rush is accused of plagiarism by C. W. Haider, a wannabe writer. Feeling threatened and under stress, Rush becomes subsumed by his dark Jack of Spades persona who wants revenge against Haider.
The point of view is first person with Rush as the narrator. It soon becomes obvious that he is an unreliable narrator so what he says cannot be taken at face value. The opposing forces within his mind become clearer as his knavish alter ego takes precedence. Then, as a childhood incident is described and Rush’s relationship with his family more closely examined, one begins to wonder whether the Jack of Spades personality is the true one and Andrew J. Rush is merely the public façade.
In many ways, the story is an homage to Edgar Allan Poe. Allusions, both direct and indirect, are made to several of Poe’s stories. At the beginning, Oates quotes from Poe’s story “The Imp of the Perverse,” and her story does suggest there is an imp inside each of us – we are all susceptible to impulses which may lead us to perform irrational acts.
Numerous studies have demonstrated correlations between creative occupations and mental illnesses, and this novel does reinforce the idea that there could be a connection. Certainly, there is almost a “madness” to how the Jack of Spades novels are written: after midnight in “a protracted siege of concentration” so “entire passages and pages, even chapters, by ‘Jack of Spades’ passed in a rabid blur leaving [Rush] exhausted.” (Edgar Allan Poe is thought to have had bipolar disorder.)
This book is best described as a psychological suspense novel. Certainly there is a great deal of suspense as aspects of Rush’s personality are revealed and his downward spiral continues. Will Rush be able to resist the dark side of his soul? My one complaint is that there is, however, a predictability to some events. I guessed, for example, what Rush would find in Haider’s house. Anyone who has read Poe will certainly see similarities and so be able to predict events.
But what is to be made of Haider’s writing of works like The Glowering, Sister Witches of Hecate County, Ghost-Tales of the Chilliwick Club, and Murder at Dusk? What Rush discovers cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence. Unfortunately no explanation is offered. Could cryptomnesia be so prevalent?
Perhaps the best indication of the quality of this book is that it is one I will probably re-read in the future. Even a quick second skim hints at wonderful touches (like the misspelling of Rush’s surname and the mishearing of Haider’s) which might be initially missed.