Joyce Carol Oates on Catastrophizing and Environmental Collapse


Your story in this week’s issue, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” takes place in a fictional town in the Hudson Valley whose residents have suffered from a series of natural disasters and medical issues. What drew you to this setting?

Hazelton-on-Hudson has been the setting of other fiction of mine, most extensively in a novel titled “American Appetites.” The small, upscale community is analogous to Princeton, New Jersey, but it has the added scenic benefit of being on the Hudson River, in a beautiful region that always evokes, in my imagination, at least, Washington Irving’s strange, dreamy gothic tales of the old Dutch settlement. (My story contains specific allusions to “Rip Van Winkle.”)

The protagonist of the story, Luce, lives in a constant state of anxiety as she watches the landscape around her fall apart and her friends succumb to cancer and other illnesses. Her husband, Andrew, accuses her of “catastrophizing.” Is she?

Accusing others of “catastrophizing,” even as the world is disintegrating and one’s own health has become tenuous, is a form of denial in which most/many of us indulge daily. Obviously, we cannot “catastrophize” enough in proportion to the imminent global disaster, yet the human brain is so constituted that we cannot seem to imagine, still less take seriously, dangers that are not immediate. Eventually, in the story, both wife and husband must wear masks in order to endure their situation and persist in their roles with each other.

Are the trends that Luce notices in Hazelton-on-Hudson due to toxic pollution and climate change, or are they pure coincidence? Should we all be catastrophizing?

For all its beauty, the Hudson River Valley has its share of pollution, far more than anyone might guess while gazing at the romantic fall foliage and the idyllic, magisterial river. (One can keep a pollution watch in the region online.)

Your title, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” is taken from a sermon that the Colonial theologian and minister Jonathan Edwards preached to congregations in Massachusetts and Connecticut, in 1741. Why? Is there a connection for you between then and now?

Yes, the connection is fairly evident: damnation in the Puritan past was theological, and damnation in the present comes in the form of imminent environmental collapse and personal health issues. Not just health itself but the crushing expense of medical insurance constitutes the “damnation” of many Americans. While we imagine that we are free from paying onerous taxes for socialized national medical care, we are, in fact, “taxed” far more extensively by our current dysfunctional system.

The other work that’s central here is Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor (“Death and the Maiden”). How did it find its way into this story?

It is a beautiful, exquisite, haunting work of music that is exactly what Luce and her friends would want to play on this occasion.

Everything in the story is told from Luce’s perspective, yet in the third person. Why did you choose not to write this in the first person?

The story would not be possible at all as a first-person narration. I would not have considered that perspective for a moment. It has to be “third-person restrictive,” at a little remove, as if a movie camera were hovering about Luce at a distance of about eighteen inches. We “see” her and, to a degree, inhabit her, but we are not identical to her. Like the others, Luce is a subject we are observing through a kind of scrim of irony and sympathy.


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