If ever there was bad timing for a book’s release, it is the release date of Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. by Joyce Carol Oates. With its discussion of police brutality and bigotry, one would think it is a perfect time to publish the book. However, the police brutality, in this case, occurs against a wealthy, white family patriarch, which feels more like a declaration of “All Lives Matter” rather than a timely story that contributes to the fight against racist police violence.
Also, the tragedy that befalls this larger-than-life patriarch is only the impetus for the rest of the story, which is, in fact, more about the dissolution of the family at the father’s death. Granted, the scene of his beating is horrible. It is rare for a scene of violence to bother me in a story, but I had a very difficult time pushing through that scene, which occurs within the first few chapters. I almost opted to mark it as a DNF because the scene was so uncomfortable. However, it is a brief flash in an over-long story, seen and then passed over for his death and the aftermath.
The rest of the novel follows the five children and wife of the patriarch as they each struggle to cope with his passing and his impact on their lives. We quickly find that three of the children are horrible human beings. Selfish, angry, racist, and wholly absorbed in maintaining the status quo, you find those scenes that focus on them to be just as uncomfortable as the police beating. They hide behind their white privilege and ability to donate money to worthy causes to justify their racism and abhor anyone who may actually comingle with someone of another skin color, including their mother.
If that were not bad enough, the scenes that focus on the widow and her grief drag on interminably. I read the novel for over an hour one night and still did not get through that first rush of grief the widow experiences. At some point, you no longer care about her suffering and her utter lack of interest in life. As callous as it sounds, you just want the scene to end so that the story would move forward.
In the background of all this is the fact that the family files a lawsuit against the local police department who caused their father’s death. It truly is in the background of the novel, mentioned only as a point of the eldest’s anger and obsession. Here is another example of where the story’s release may not be the most timely. The McClaren family is wealthy. They can afford to seek legal justice for their father, but they are the exception. Ms. Oates discusses the expense associated with such lawsuits and how they can last for years. There are very few families who can afford to take on such cases and pointing out this fact seems rather tactless.
Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. is too much of everything. It is too long. Ms. Oates drags out certain scenes, like the widow’s grief and battle to simply survive after her husband’s death so that they feel never-ending. Three of the siblings are too selfish. The family exhibits too much bigotry and hatred towards those who are not among the family’s class. Ms. Oates tries to soften this through various love interests and a burgeoning interest in social justice within the widow, but it does not feel enough. No one calls the three siblings on their white privilege. The family receives closure in their lawsuit, again something that just does not happen in real life. The entire story made me feel uncomfortable, and not because it forced me to look at my own ignorance regarding racism. I don’t feel that the story contributes anything to the Black Lives Matter movement. In fact, as I previously said, it feels more like a statement that white people can suffer at the hands of the police as well, which is the epitome of those who declare “All Lives Matter.” I finished Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. rather disgusted with the family, the story in general, and the publisher for releasing the novel. I know Ms. Oates is a literary darling, but this is simply the wrong story for the current situation within the United States right now.