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 sedan belonging to the murderous woman: “It was not a new model but appeared pristine, newly minted, inviolate. In bright sunshine it gleamed the beautiful liquidy green of the ocean’s interior, and in clouded, impacted light it gleamed a subtler, perhaps more beautiful dark, steely gunmetal grey. Its chassis was strongly built to withstand even terrible collisions. It had a powerful transmission that, as she drove, vibrated upward…” The car is a vehicle for emotion-at its most extreme, a replacement man.
Oates herself never suffers from metal fatigue. I lost count of the number of guns in these stories, often flaunting exquisite mother of pearl handles. Oates is herself graceful but deadly. She is politically focused too, and would make an excellent ally for Michael Moore (director of the anti-gun film Bowling for Columbine), although she lacks any sense of humour.
She has a way of firing, without warning, lines such as this one (produced by another jealous woman in “Summer Sweat”): “She came to suppose she’d never really known him, except intimately.” This casual bullseye is characteristic and reveals a truth central to her work. “Knowing” is, for Oates, infinitely complicated. A “finished” character is a contradiction in terms. All stories are incomplete and may be subject to violation. She is a protean writer, naturally suited to the short story form: she dips in and bows out of lives without compunction or a backward glance.
In the outstanding story “Secret, Silent,” Kathryn, a nervous student, travelling on a Greyhound bus to an important interview, sits next to a stranger, Karla. Oates describes her brilliantly. Even her handbag is suspect: “oversized” and made of “simulated leather lizard skin.”
Oates writes calmly and reasonably about danger, violence and insanity. Nothing rattles her; she is fastidious on taboo subjects, she makes herself at home in the most disturbed minds. The short story form doesn’t cramp her style; she writes expansively, never rushes.
It is unpleasant reading these stories in sequence. Each story ideally needs to be read separately, weeks apart from its desolating neighbours. Each has its own aftershock. Recovery time is needed. And the last stories in the collection are the most upsetting of all-about a grotesque rape, a teenage assassin, a death by electric chair. There is, it turns out, such a thing as overkill.