Headline Exploitation? Joyce Carol Oates's "Landfill"

A student pointed me to a recent Joyce Carol Oates story in The New Yorker, called "Landfill," which is available for free online. It's about a young college student named Hector Campos, Jr., who is a pledge at a fraternity at a university in Michigan. One night he disappears mysteriously after drinking heavily at the frat house. Some blood is found at the trash dumpster outside the frat-house; several weeks later his body is found at the local landfill.

It's a decent enough story -- Oates paints some strongly visceral, experiential images -- like what it might be like to lie dying in a trash dumpster with a broken neck, for example. There is also some Catholic imagery in the middle of the story, which suggests a sympathetic reading: is Campos an exemplary, Christ-like figure of some kind? Does he die for the sins of American excess, the ugly psycho-social mess concealed in the American college system? (Shades of Duke Lacrosse) Alongside the sympathetic allegorical reading and the scathing portrait of fraternity life, Oates also throws in some references to evolution via a biology lecture ("Evolution is only possible through change, species change not by free will but blindly"), suggesting an equally viable, reading of Campos' death that is distinctly un-Christ-like: the death of a drunk fraternity brother who got stuck in a dumpster as a kind of natural selection, a fitting fate for someone who was, if you will, imperfectly adapted to whatever enables survival in today's college culture.

All fine and good. What's unsettling is that Oates' story bears a very close resemblance to a real death, which occurred in southern New Jersey a few months ago. John Fiocco, Jr., a college student at The College of New Jersey, died in the same mysterious way, and was discovered in the same way (at a landfill) a few weeks later. Oates even uses the date of Fiocco's own death/disappearance -- March 25.

Some faculty members at TCNJ noticed the parallels in Oates' story, and complained, leading to a small spate of media coverage in South Jersey and the Philadelphia area (see articles in the Inquirer and the Daily Princetonian). In these articles, Oates apologizes (in a way) for potentially hurting the feelings of the family and friends of John Fiocco, Jr., though she stops well short of saying, "I should never have written this story" or "I should have disguised the details of this young man's death more carefully." It's the usual double-speak of "I'm sorry if your feelings were hurt by what I knowingly and willfully did." (Shades of Kobe Bryant)

Obviously getting inspiration from today's headlines is a tried-and-true technique, used by many, if not most, contemporary writers. And I don't know that there were many complaints when Oates did a version of this earlier, with her famous novel Black Water, which did to Mary Jo Kopechne, Ted Kennedy, and Chappaquiddick what "Landfill" does to John Fiocco, Jr. The difference there might have been that her purpose in that novel was to unmask the myth of the Kennedys, and the corruption of Senator Ted Kennedy in particular. That is what one might call a political Roman a Clef, making an important feminist point. But none of that fire remains in "Landfill," and it's unclear what the point really is.

In general, real life is and must be fair game for fiction, but everything depends on how it's done. Here there's something senseless in the way Oates works closely with the story of this tragic death (she even uses the detail about blood found at the dumpster) and turns it into easy fodder for this short story. To my eye this isn't so much appropriation as it is exploitation -- the fictional equivalent of ambulance chasing.


zoe p. said...

I read the stories too. I'd say that there's a question of power and public life; the surviving Kennedys are and were in a very different position from the surviving Fioccos.

Mindy said...

I read the some of the stories too

Anonymous said...

Oates also wrote a novel called "Zombie" that was based on the Jeffrey Dahmer case. She uses real stories in her writing. It's how she works, like Truman Capote. I can see how the family would have been hurt by the story. It was a good story but really it was about a fictional set of characters, not the Fioccos. She seems to be fascinated with reconstructing bizzare or horrible crimes and trying to imagine how the crime could have happened, how the victims and criminals got to that point, and how some of the missing or mysterious elements of the story might be explained.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree that any of the stories Oates has published, based on real-life events, are exploitative. She is one of the most incisive commentators on our insane American life. This story was almost too much for me to read, because of its heartbreaking portrayal of a confused boy, desperate to find manhood. A companion piece would be the recent movie about Facebook. These children are not ready to be away from home, and as a teacher of seniors, I wonder that more of them don't ruin or even end their lives prematurely at college, they are so ill-prepared emotionally to be there. I also wonder whether Oates, a long-time professor at Princeton, didn't feel it was time to expose the morally bankrupt 'Greek' system. I think, or hope, that if I were that young man's mom, I would thank Oates for taking my son's life so seriously, for pursuing the meaning of his life and death, and for trying to bring attention to the circumstances.

Anonymous said...

The purpose of "Landfill" is to evoke the creepy feeling that a parent can have when his or her child goes off to another place and, so, the parent can no longer protect (or control) the child and, so, has to worry, sometimes for no reason, about his or her child's safety. It is especially crushing that the Campos family had managed to rise out of its lower class origins, only to have such an unfortunate result happen to the aspirational dreams that its only child represented.

Who cannot empathize with their crushing (figuratively) disappointment?

Of course, since time immemorial, powerful stories have been based upon real-life events, so I'm not sure what the big deal is that this one was as well--or what the indiscretion might be. Perhaps, exploitation, as you put it, would have occurred if the story hadn't been so memorable and hadn't evoked so much identification on the part of the reader (or at least, this reader).

Don't you recall the great Chekhov story where the victim dies underwater and how creepy that was? Did it matter whether or not it was based on someone in particular or whether it was informed by Chekhov's medical practice in general? With all due respect, I don't understand your wish to limit the artist's source material.