31 Days of Stories 2009, Day 25: “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” by Joyce Carol Oates
From Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Selected Early Stories.
Despite forays into Gothic or Romantic territory throughout her prodigious career, Joyce Carol Oates’s preferred mode is naturalism, and her pervasive subject is American – specifically American – malaise. In “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again,” Oates follows an unnamed teenage girl’s descent into the belly of the beast. The beast, in this instance, is Detroit. Or perhaps that’s the wrong metaphor. Perhaps a better metaphor would be the “forest,” which in classical literature was often a place of danger and madness. (Indeed, the story features not one but two peripheral characters named Mr. Forest (or, Mr. Forrest).)
Oates’s story clearly juxtaposes the paradisiacal comfort of the narrator’s suburban home in Bloomfield, where her parents own a $180,000 house and are members of groups with names like the Bloomfield Hills Country Club, with the grimy degradations of the city. In Detroit, “[e]verything is falling out the bottom.” In Detroit, “[s]craps of paper flutter in the air like pigeons, dirt flies up and hits you right in the eye.” And in Detroit, the narrator falls in with Clarita, a woman of indeterminate age (“She is twenty, twenty-five, she is thirty or more?”) who works as a prostitute in the employ of Simon, her junkie pimp.
“Once I was Huckleberry Finn,” Simon tells the narrator, “but now I am Roderick Usher.” The twin invocations are hardly accidental. Huck, like Oates’s wayward teenager, is an itinerant who flees his home for parts unknown. (Whereas Huck takes a raft down the Mississippi, Oates’s narrator walks out of school one Tuesday afternoon and hops a bus for the city.) Roderick Usher, like Simon, was once a privileged man who by the end of Poe’s story has descended into madness. (Simon “is said to have come from a home not much different from” the narrator’s, but now “his mind is being twisted out of shape.”) The narrator has a conflicted relationship with the man who forces her into prostitution: she is simultaneously repelled by his moodiness and his addiction, and attracted to him sexually: “Would I go back to Simon again? Would I lie down with him in all that filth and craziness? Over and over again.”)
Oates’s story is told out of sequence and in fragments; the conceit is that we are being presented with notes the narrator is making for an English class essay after being released from the Detroit House of Correction. This technical approach allows Oates to imbue her story with a high level of irony, since the notes we are given are putatively put together by a 16-year-old girl looking back at the traumatic experience that befell her only a year before. She has neither the distance nor the self-awareness to comprehend her experience; when she recalls getting beaten up in the women’s lavatory at the prison by a black girl and a working-class white girl, the narrator is incapable of imagining why they could possibly be jealous of her relatively privileged upbringing. Furthermore, her repeated refrain to the prison matron – “I won’t go home” – is undercut in the story’s final stages, when she is returned to the comforts of the family fold:
Convulsed in Father’s arms, I say I will never leave again, never, why did I leave, where did I go, what happened, my mind is gone wrong, my body is one big bruise, my backbone was sucked dry, it wasn’t the men who hurt me and Simon never hurt me but only those girls … my God, how they hurt me … I will never leave home again …
“How I Contemplated the World” is something of a companion piece to Oates’s famous story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” In both cases a teenaged girl is lured into dangerous circumstances beyond the safety of their family homes. Connie’s fate at the end of “Where Are You Going” is more ambiguous than that of the narrator in “How I Contemplated the World,” but in both cases, Oates provides us with disquieting glimpses at the extremes of coming-of-age in America.