Reading Joyce Carol Oates over the years, one repeatedly encounters variations of a female character who is delicate and headachy, neurasthenic and nervous, intelligent but lacking in wit, and with little appetite for food or sex and frequent recourse to nausea when confronted with either one. She lives, often enough, in a skillfully sketched small-town or blue-collar or rural environment, though sometimes in an academic one, and is assaulted, either spiritually or physically, by the blunt, brutal or bourgeois forces that surround her.
She is, at the same time, not immune herself to self-delusion, petty crime or cruelty.
This recurring persona is only one, though perhaps the most immediately evident, of the instantly identifiable characteristics that distinguish Oates from the other great writers of her generation. Yet for an author with such a distinctive style, Oates seems in this collection of short stories to be all too conscious of those other writers, and not just Tennessee Williams, who invented Blanche DuBois before Oates had a chance to.
There’s one story in this collection, “The Jesters”, about a married couple who become obsessed with the noises their unseen neighbors make, that could easily have been a John Cheever story – the B-side (if stories had B-sides!) of Cheever’s justly famous tale of suburban angst, “The Swimmer”. Another story, “Forked River Roadside Shrine, South Jersey”, narrated in the voice of a dead teenage boy who’d “bled out” after a drug-fueled car crash, could easily have been a “deep cut” (to extend the musical metaphor) in a collection of Steven King short stories.
And “Betrayal”, the story of a young man who identifies so closely with bonobos that he transmogrifies into one – yes, that’s a “spoiler”, but the ending of the story is so obvious near the beginning that nothing much will be spoiled for the reader – could have been written by any number of fantasists or science fiction writers of recent vintage. At one point, the still-human young man recounts to his parents that “Bonobos, often called ‘pygmy chimps,’ should not be confused with the more common, more widely distributed and far more aggressive chimpanzees.”
That’s not dialogue, that’s Wikilogue.
Most egregiously, in the title story, Oates decides for some unfathomable reason to take a hatchet to the great American poet and her artistic better, Robert Frost, via a posthumous and slanderous confabulation in which a young, female interlocutor is crudely bullied and sexually harassed by the elderly poet (“Really, my dear! You came to Bread Loaf to interview the revered Mr. Frost, with but a single pair of panties”).
When I first encountered this story in Harper’s, I made the false assumption that Oates was lightly fictionalizing an actual, unpleasant encounter with Frost when she was a student or young writer. But as the book makes clear, “this is a work of fiction, though based upon (selected) historical research.” Note the parenthetical “selected”: What this would seem to mean is that Oates chose to read, or rely upon, only those biographies of Frost that paint him as a horrible human being, and not those that present him in a kinder light.
As a result, we get beyond-heavy-handed passages like this: “The poet’s large, slack-jawed face contorted into a look of sheer disdain, disgust…’You – whoever you purport to be – an interviewer for a third-rate poetry journal – what do you know of me?… You haven’t the intelligence to comprehend my poems any more than a blind child could comprehend anything beyond the Braille she reads with her fingertips… You are nothing. People like you don’t exist.’”
Now, to be clear, there is an order of morality for stories like this. If Oates had actually had an encounter with Frost that resembled this one in some fashion, she would have been well-justified to complain of his grotesque behavior while he was still living, and/or (bearing in mind libel laws) to write about it, whether in fiction or non-fiction, before or after his death.
Descending one level, and assuming as would seem to be the case that she had not had any such encounter, she could have composed a fictive account much as she did, but made the male character, instead of a Frost-shaped punching bag, rather an unnamed or fictionalized poet who was based on some of her personal encounters or on the not unreasonable assumption that many hugely successful male writers are indeed wild boars.
Lastly, and least, she could have studied some other accounts of Frost’s life and attempted to write a story that presented him as a whole human being, and not solely as a ugly, pompous monster. Instead, she chose a Lizzie Borden-like form of crude literary patricide (which, coincidentally or not, happens to be the title of the very next, and last, story in this problematic collection.)
Speaking of “Patricide”, this story exemplifies another problem with this collection: the lack of attention to word choice on Oates’ part, or perhaps a serious failure on the part of her copy editors, if any.
Consider this: “I will spare my mother this indignation, out of numerous others.” She means, I think, “indignity”. (Or her character does. Same difference, because Oates is clearly not making an ironic point about her character’s literacy.)
Or, “…he could be depended upon to wear what is called, with jaw-dropping pretension, bespoken suits.” She means, I think, “bespoke”. It isn’t pretentious to get the damn word right!
“Ice-hockey goalees”? How did that one get by her?
“A woman in her late seventies with a respectful reputation”? No, respectable.
And so forth, and so on.
But there are some memorable stories in this collection, such as “Stephanos Is Dead”, in which the outpouring of sorrow and grief on behalf of the unseen title character, a professor, forces the narrator, who is pointedly not a professor but rather an adjunct instructor, to question her own lack of impact on the people around her even as she faces her own impending demise.
Better still is the superb story “The Hunter”, about the very-awkward visit of a nervous female poet to a small Midwestern University. It’s an engrossing, psychologically penetrating and even, somehow, suspenseful story that serves as a welcome reminder that the Oates of her evocative and compelling early short story collections – Upon the Sweeping Flood and Other Stories, The Wheel of Love, and Marriages and Infidelities among many others – is still producing first-rate work.
“The Hunter” also, in its first two sentences, contains a neat summation of Oates’ career as a writer that will sound harsh only to those who haven’t read her finest works, nor understand how masterful she can be at her best: “In private, a nervous collapse is an illness. In public, it can be a career.”