The ever-abundant Joyce Carol Oates continues to create fresh shocks - too manyby Kate Kellaway / July 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Book: Faithless Author: Joyce Carol Oates Price: 4th Estate,£7.99
Does Joyce Carol Oates write too much? I take a look at the inside leaf of her newest book and start to count: 29 novels; eight thrillers; 23 short story collections; four novellas; eight collections of poetry; seven plays; eight collections of essays and a book for children. I thought I’d read a large slice of her work but it turns out I have barely started.
Oates is a professor at Princeton-a cultivated, wry, oblique writer with a taste for sentences of Jamesian length. She is a ventriloquist and no character is too proletarian for her delicate art. When We were the Mulvaneys, her 24th novel, was taken up by Oprah Winfrey, she reached a level of popularity in America which, like a freak heatwave, seems to have made her faint with surprise. And Blonde, her monumental novel about Marilyn Monroe, confirmed her new status. But Oates has remained admirably hard to pin down in life and on the page. Interviewers comment on her stillness (one said, memorably, that she had a “plant-like composure”). The stillness must, I suppose, be essential for energy conservation.
Her new book Faithless-a collection of 21 stories-has been enticingly marketed by her US publishers with a sexy cover (a woman in a low-backed, sea green dress with a cloud of dark hair embracing a tanned, bare-armed man) and the subtitle is Tales of Transgression. It is misleading packaging, for these stories are not seductive. They are more often rebarbative, seldom about sexual pleasure and never about love. Several are about the ugly side-effects of sexual relationships and Oates is especially interested in jealousy-of a psychotic intensity. In these stories, jealousy is not emotion, it is violent intention. It is usual to feel a sickened sense of doom when reading her.
“Lover,” one of the most shocking stories-all are disturbing-is about a woman who resolves to kill her former lover by crashing her car into his on the motorway (inured to the idea that she may kill innocent strangers at the same time). This is a story guaranteed to make the palms sweat, but it is full of acute observations, caught glancingly, like a double check in a wing mirror. “At high speeds,” the woman observes, “unhappiness is slightly ridiculous.” Oates describes cars in voluptuous detail. Here is part of a long description of the Saab…