My Sister, My Love

*I felt compelled to offer a review after yesterday’s post “The Doctorow Is In” for those of you who might be interested in Joyce Carol Oates. This is one of many Oates offerings, but will give you a good idea of the many squeamish subjects on which she chooses to pen.

If you are new to the works of Joyce Carol Oates, I strongly suggest that you choose something other than My Sister, My Love on which to cut your teeth. Oates loves to walk on the dark side, but this is a Stygian piece even for her. My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skylar Rampike, is a novel surrounding the murder of six year old figure skating prodigy Bliss (nee Edna Louise) Rampike.  Ten years after her murder, her story is told in the voice of now nineteen year old Skylar Rampike, Bliss’s brother.  Through his “unique personal document” he takes us on a hideously freakish journey of the events leading up to and following Bliss’s death.

“Ladiez ‘n’ gentlemen here is a little-girl skater who is truly little no word but exquisite! angelic: fan-tas-tic!  there is a gasp from the audience what a luscious sight: platinum-blond cotton-candy hair cascading in curls..she’s wearing a black-lace Spanish veil mantilla d’you call it?  qui-ite a dramatic costume for a five-year-old…left shoulder daringly bared tight black-sequined bodice black taffeta skirt very very short black lace matching panties peeking out beneath black eyelet stockings and sexy black leather high-top skates like boots…”

If images of Jon Benet Ramsey come to mind, you are correct.  The Rampikes are merely a thin veil loosely shrouding their Ramsey counterparts. The Rampike family resides not in Colorado, but rather in upscale Fair Hills, NJ.  With philandering, head-honcho, ex-jock “Bix” as the Rampike patriarch, and neurotic, social climbing, ex-skater wife Betsey at his heel, we sit uncomfortably on the sidelines and watch as Skyler rewinds and plays back his scarred and drug hazed (prescription) childhood.

Bix (corporate monster) and Betsey (insecure parvenu) Rampike move us through the grotesque world of the quintessential self-absorbed parent. Washing their hands of any parental responsibility, Skyler rehashes the outsourcing of their love through nannies, tutors, and a barrage of pediatric specialists.  Between Skyler’s school (Bliss is privately tutored due to skating practices) and Betsey’s micro-management of his personality, Oates goes to town on today’s grandiose culture and specifically the frightening trends of pediatric psychopharmacology exposing the raw truth (though exaggerated) that we live in a medicated culture.

A self declared “vulgar accident of history” and a child born unto tabloid hell, Skylar (Burke Ramsey) represents the sickening world of the tabloid and its power over public opinion, so much so that Skyler catches himself wondering if he actually did kill Bliss.  Through his character, Oates gives painful insight into Skyler’s (Burke’s) forgotten life, left in ruins by the media circus surrounding the death of his sister.

Not for the faint of heart, reading My Sister, My Love feels more like an extreme sport than a literary venture. Laced with footnotes, footnoted footnotes, malapropisms, and intentional solecisms, My Sister, My Love is a tough read.  Combined with themes of pedophilia, pediatric pharmacology, the educational system, hazards of the media, consumerism, religious fanaticism, infidelity…you get the picture, it is simply too much.

Disturbing on so many levels, one does have to concede that this must have been an extremely difficult book to write. The seductive images of Bliss literally make you squirm as does the deeply disturbing character of pedophile Gunther Ruscha whom Oates attentively weaves into Skyler’s story.  No doubt Ms. Oates must have spent countless hours in the vast world of cyberspace researching America’s most notorious unsolved crime and the dark side of human nature; a place where Joyce Carol Oates never fears to go.

-Post by Megan Shaffer