Throughout Joyce Carol Oates’ long and prolific writing career, a frequently-told childhood story has been about how, when she submitted her first novel to a publisher, it was rejected on the grounds that it was too pessimistic. Of course, since then, Oates has gone on to become the indisputable queen of a post-modern American Gothic that has transcended mere pessimism to give us everything from the grotesque to the sublime, and all the varying shades in between.
This latest collection comprises of 8 stories that explore the many dark spaces surrounding the fears that disquiet, unsettle or unhinge human lives. Yet, as with almost all of Oates’ fiction, there are layers of pathos, hints of possible absolution and just the slightest touches of buoyancy that keep her damaged and fragile characters (some even bordering on mental derangement) from sinking entirely into the freakish and despairing mires they find themselves in. And it is not so surprising, as we peer deep into those abyss-like depths that Oates reveals to us, to catch the odd flash of something familiar, something known, something that reflects back our own dread.
That most of these stories have been previously published in magazines over the years will, likely, not be a concern for her loyal readers. And, for new readers, this collection will be a treat.
The first story, ‘The Home at Craigmilnar’, is rather predictable with its Catholic clergy horror story about a former nun who is a cardiac patient, an orderly who knows a little more about her past than she wants to let on and, well, you can imagine the rest. Yet, Oates creates such vivid, audacious images with simple prose that what could have become tired and hackneyed in less able hands is very readable here.
Once we get past that first story, our patience is rewarded as there is one polished gem after another. In each story, the central character is a troubled, sad person with awkward, perplexing relationships — either with family members or newly-encountered strangers or their world, in general. As each one tries to figure out and then reach for an elusive something, diffidently and rather blindly, the threads that begin to unspool are sometimes surprising and sometimes inevitable, but, always ending in a tangled, complex mess.
Five of these eight central characters are female (mostly white) struggling to find their place in a changing, confusing world — an older widow seeking relief from the pain of her loss, a graduate student trying to help her brother who seems to have gone off the tracks, a professor frightened for her life in a bad neighborhood, a young woman trolling the subway for her version of love, a teenager trying to save her baby brother from their mother’s frustrations. They have all lived rather sheltered lives before being thrust into circumstances that are, to them, bewildering and filled with many tensions. Oates unfolds these tensions so masterfully that they keep us turning the pages despite the overwhelming, rising desperation. And all the characters try, oh so bravely, to confront and deal with whatever they’re up against — with drugs, guns, sexuality, intellectual rationalization, blind devotion or a widely-sweeping anger that is directed, at times, even at themselves.
My favorite story is second-to-last and titled, ‘Last Man of Letters’, wherein a cantankerous, old man, a renowned author and the titular “man of letters”, is on a European book tour where he finds pretty much everything and everyone offensive — particularly the young literary women who are all around him as journalists, publicists, editors, translators, etc. He is withering and merciless in his put-downs. And, the denouement, which I won’t spoil for you, is this magical scene painted with unforgettable word pictures — probably the most satisfying ending of all the stories here. I recommend starting with this story just to see how deliciously Oates can show a simmering, growing, petty, and vicious anger overtake a human being so entirely.
The longest story in the collection is ‘The Rescuer’, where a sister, an anthropology graduate student, tries to retrieve her scholar brother from his rapidly slipping-down life and, instead, finds herself getting sucked into his quicksand world with its rather ominous and bewildering characters. Again, in other hands, this story could have sagged and lost appeal because of the seemingly driftless narrative. But, as always, Oates weaves the plot points so skillfully and with seeming effortlessness that the lack of any real ending does not disappoint whatsoever.
The title story is the last in the collection. A timorous professor, who teaches English to adults in inner-city Detroit during the late-60s, has started carrying a handgun for self-protection. One day, on her way to the parking lot, she thinks she’s being followed. Oates fills the pages here with rich sensory details of every split-second impression that the woman has of her follower, herself and her surroundings, which, her husband has often warned her, is a “high crime area”. And, as we come to fully inhabit her panicked and rapidly-flitting mind, we witness her helpless frailty and internal struggles as she tries not to let her trigger-finger win, even as the visceral fear threatens to take over completely.
I have read very little of Oates’ oeuvre of more than 140 books or so (that’s roughly 2 books per year since she was born!) Mostly, I’ve enjoyed her non-fiction books and magazine essays and reviews. Recent reviews of her just-released novel, ‘Carthage’, have suggested that she has got to the point where she is either repeating certain metaphors and images from her own previous works or that they are getting clunky. I cannot speak to this as I don’t have those other fiction reference points. Based on these stories alone, though, I was pleasantly swept along with the clever and smooth ways that she wields language and metaphor. In this collection, at least, she does not repeat or get clunky. Some of these stories are dated, you can tell, from references, for example, to the sound of tapes running during an interview or the use of payphones rather than cellphones. Yet, this does not, as is the case with all good storytelling, detract in any way.
In many of her personal essays and non-fiction books, Oates has mentioned how she is drawn to failure (see ‘On Boxing’ and ‘The Faith of A Writer’). She has also said how, as a writer, she is concerned with the social and moral conditions of her generation. With these stories, Oates shines a bright and steady spotlight on the specific difficult social and moral issues that, ultimately, drive each of the main characters towards their individual failures. Which, in a subversive way, is Oates’ triumph as an author.