By Joyce Carol Oates – This collection of mostly longish short stories features Oates’s sly humor and penchant for the off-kilter. There’s something just a little bit obsessive, just a little wrong about many of the stories’ protagonists, until there’s a LOT wrong. Someplace along the line, they take a turn into some very dark places.
The disarticulated title of the story, “DIS MEM BER” anticipates the menace underlying the tale of a pre-teen girl fascinated by her older step-cousin—handsome, mysterious, and just disreputable enough to charm a young girl and enrage her father. The first-person narrator mostly misses the sinister potential in his attentions, but you will not, and you read on with growing unease.
Similarly, in the story “Heartbreak,” a lumpy young teen is jealous of her attractive older sister and her budding relationship with their stepfather’s handsome nephew. It opens as follows: “In the top drawer of my step-dad’s bureau the gun was kept,” signaling that Oates will follow Chekhov’s famous advice: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”
Although these two tales turn out quite differently, they show an affinity for the voice of a young girl troubled by her sexuality and the impact on men that she has, may have, may never have, wants, and fears. Oates mimics the progress and backtracking and stuttering nature of thought with liberal use of interjected italics and parenthetical phrasing: “Even when Rowan was furious with me, and disgusted with me, still he was fond of me. This I know. It is a (secret) memory I cherish.” These devices in places feel excessive, even intrusive. Parentheses within parentheses send you down a rabbit hole.
Young girls are not the only females prey to second thoughts. The eerie story “The Crawl Space” concerns a widow haunted by—and haunting—the home she shared with her husband, now in other hands. Similarly, in “Great Blue Heron,” a new widow is plagued by her husband’s brother, determined to wrest the executorship of his estate—and, undoubtedly, all his assets—from her. What precisely happens in these two stories, as the women’s ghosts and fantasies take hold, is not clear. Their trace of ambiguity leaves you free to interpret. Letting readers “do some of the work themselves” can be a strength of the short story form.
In “The Drowned Girl,” a college student becomes obsessed with the unexplained death of a fellow student. “Like gnats such thoughts pass through my head. Sometimes in my large lecture classes the low persistent buzzing is such that I can barely hear the professor’s voice and I must stare and stare like a lip-reader.” In this, as in all of these stories, Oates deftly creates a specific, concrete setting for her characters. The believability of these environments makes you believe the characters also are plausible until you’ve traveled with them pretty far into the deep weeds of their bizarre perceptions.
The final story, “Welcome to Friendly Skies!” is not a thematic fit with the others, but ends the book on a decidedly humorous note. Passengers on a you-can-anticipate “ill-fated” flight to Amchitka, Alaska, are taken through the standard airplane safety monologue with a great many ominous additions.
Lawrence Block’s recent multi-authored short story collection, In Sunlight or in Shadow, inspired by the realist paintings of Edward Hopper, could not pass up the opportunity to include one of Oates’s lonely—and deliciously skewed—female protagonists.