Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A Book of American Martyrs
by joyce carol oates
ecco, 752 pages, $29.99

A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates’s novel about the shooting of an abortionist by a Christian “Soldier of God,” is perfectly unempathetic. Lately we’ve heard a lot about how important it is to feel empathy for those on the other side of various moral, political, and religious divides. Even if we abhor the beliefs of others, we are exhorted to see them as complex human beings like ourselves. Oates will have none of it. She offers insights into the nature of abortion—but creates a world almost wholly devoid of three-dimensional human beings.

Gus Voorhees, the murdered abortionist, is a plaster saint. Yes, he sacrifices time with his family to the demands of his job. Yes, he’s idealistic, refusing to acknowledge the danger he faces and the suffering his family endures for the sake of his duties. But since these flaws are his only characteristics, they become job-interview answers: “My biggest problem is that sometimes I just care too much.”

Gus’s family consists of wife Jenna (brittle, desperate, angry, and ashamed of her anger), daughter Melissa (adopted, sweet), son Darren (on page 653 he displays for the first time an emotion other than contemptuous anger), and daughter Naomi (angry, ashamed, detached from reality).

Luther, Gus’s killer, has a depressed wife and a few children whose personalities don’t matter. The one exception is his daughter Dawn. In the novel’s final pages, Dawn Dunphy becomes the only fully imagined character: a boxer and a conflicted Christian, a collage of humility and angry pride. She feels her soul “swerve” when she faces the beauty of her opponents. (Victorious over an opponent, she wants to whisper in her ear, “Forgive me.”) She punches the heavy bag until she nearly faints, and sends her prize money to the mother who says women boxers are under “the influence of Satan.” She’s untutored in her faith and clumsy in her thinking—but Oates makes her feel real, and so she can be loved.

Her father the killer sounds like he could be equally complex: a bully and rapist who repents and tries to serve his Lord. But Oates piles so much onto this character that he descends into the ridiculous. He has too many motives for his crime. He wants to die (this is his most consistent desire) and to escape his depressed wife (whom he nearly smothers in a “mercy-killing”). He’s filled with shame over his failure to become a minister, his adultery, his role in the accidental death of his daughter.

All of this is too much, but plausibly too much—life often overwhelms people with similar pile-ups of catastrophe. What is too much too much, from a literary standpoint, is that the dead girl had Down’s syndrome, and the burden of her disability made Luther subconsciously wish she were dead. What is too much too much is that Luther sometimes actually thinks his daughter died not in a car crash but in an abortion, possibly because of his traumatic brain injury. What is too much too much is the dead daughter’s name: Daphne Dunphy.

Luther’s narrative voice is studied and ponderous. It is the voice of an educated author imagining what it might be like to read nothing but the Bible. He always says “my dear wife,” even when he’s talking about how he wants to smother her. He calls his penis “my ‘thing.’” He uses “smote” as a noun. (But he knows the word “sallow.”) He thinks, “It is a sin against Jesus, to be depressed.” This is Luther lecturing us about his wife’s depression, but also Joyce Carol Oates lecturing us about American Christianity.

Martyrs intends to confront readers of all beliefs with uncomfortable truths about abortion. Oates gives a three-page list of reasons women seek abortions: “Because I will lose my job . . . I can’t afford to lose my job. I will be evicted.” “Because the father would kill me, if he knew.” “Because the father is married.” “Because it is the same man as with my sister.”

But Martyrs adds uncomfortable facts on the other side as well. We glimpse the baby parts discarded in dumpsters. Throughout the novel we hear clinic protesters chant, “Free choice is a lie / Nobody’s baby chooses to die.” When Gus’s wife Jenna hears the chant, she thinks, “It was true: but you did not want to think so.”

The best anti-abortion arguments in this book are made by a staunchly pro-choice woman. Gus’s own mother, Madalena, reveals that she had tried to abort him. “And yet, I’d been mistaken to want to be rid of the baby-to-be. Because the baby-to-be was him.” She cannot fully approve what her son does:

You are wrong to think that because you have been born, you are in a position to prevent others from being born. . . . [Abortion] must be freely available, I believe this. And yet—there was just one Gus Vorhees.

Gus argues that Madalena is being too literal-minded. And his mother replies, “It is not possible to be too literal, Gus.”

It is not possible to be too literal. This is the novel’s most unexpected argument, in which artistic integrity is marshaled in defense of the unborn.

Amid all the circumstances and tragedies of human lives, amid all the constraints and horrors the pregnant woman faces, there is a literal human child developing unseen within her. A child without consciousness—but nonetheless a unique and real human being.

Art relies on moments of recognition, in which objects in the world are suddenly seen in their full reality—regardless of what we might want them to be. Human beings try to abstract away from the flesh, to theorize it and name it in order to control it. But in art we confront the flesh as it is. It’s possible for art to be too on the nose—this novel is—but it’s not possible for art to be too literal.

Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C.