For me, the thing that characterises a novella and distinguishes it from a novel is not so much length as unity (though the two are of course connected, since unity is more easily achieved at shorter length). Black Water is a supreme example of unity of form in the novella and one I love and have returned to several times.
It’s a fictional analogue of the well-known incident of July 1969 when Senator Edward Kennedy, driving from a party on Chappaquiddick Island, accidentally drove his car off a bridge into a tidal marsh creek, an accident from which the (married) 37-year-old Senator escaped but in which his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, a 28-year-old political campaign worker, died. Subsequent investigations failed to explain certain aspects of the incident, in particular the fact that having left the scene of the accident, Kennedy did not report it for nine hours, and the whole matter remained shrouded in a mystery that blighted Kennedy’s political career.
It is into these uncertainties, and the power structures, both political and sexual, giving rise to them, that Oates dips her sharp and fluent pen, examining them through the posited viewpoint inevitably missing from official investigations and accounts, that of the injured drowning woman, her psychology and felt experience in the hours as the car slowly fills up with water.
The book begins when the accident has already happened, when Kopechni’s fictional counterpart, 26-year-old ‘Kelly’ Kelleher, is already alone and trapped in the sinking car, the unnamed senator already having swum free:
The rented Toyota, driven with such impatient exuberance by The Senator, was speeding along the unpaved unnamed road, taking the turns in giddy skidding slides, and then with no warning, somehow the car had gone off the road and had overturned in black rushing water, listing to its passenger’s side, rapidly sinking.
Am I going to die? – like this?
Structurally this scenario, the process of her drowning, is the primary unifying narrative. As Kelly struggles to free herself in a decreasing air bubble, hoping against hope that the senator will swim back down to save her, the thoughts that scramble through her desperate mind tell us the rest of the story: the party at which the charismatic and powerful senator picked Kelly out for special attention, her intelligence and political commitment that drew him, along with her physical attractiveness, her personal and sexual history that made her vulnerable to his advances and too tentative not to meet his request to bring him drinks for the drive when he was already drunk, or to dare to say he was driving too fast. You could say that the structure of the novel is circular, that the drowning is the central point around which everything else laps, like the water around the car, and laps repeatedly, returning each time with a new depth, a new insight bestowed by the increasing desperation of the situation as no one comes to rescue Kelly. Increasingly fragmented, her memories yet paradoxically create increasing connections. The drowning, you could say, is both structurally and thematically a singularity in the astronomical sense, through which a whole putative universe of narrative is accessed.
There’s a particular frisson in reading this book as an exploration of or intervention in the uncertainties of the real-life scandal (and the fact that we are generally familiar with the scandal must have to some extent dictated a structure grounded in hindsight) but you don’t have to know that background to appreciate the book. The book is chiefly psychological: it’s not merely an examination of power politics; its unity of form creates an expression of their psychological and emotional ramifications, and is thus, to my mind, extremely affecting.