31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 19: “The Skull: A Love Story” by Joyce Carol Oates

May 19, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From I Am No One You Know

I_Am_No_One_You_KnowJoyce Carol Oates is a famously protean writer, equally comfortable in the mode of naturalism, historical fiction, horror, and mystery. Formally, the subtitle of “The Skull” indicates that it is a love story, and so it is, albeit of a very twisted and morbid variety. It also contains Gothic elements and aspects of a murder mystery.

The protagonist is New Jersey professor Kyle Cassity, whose areas of specialization are sociology, anthropology, and forensic science. A skilled sculptor, Kyle also works with the police department reconstructing the skeletons of unidentified human remains. His latest assignment is to reassemble the skull of a human female, which has been smashed into hundreds of tiny fragments and delivered to him “like broken crockery” in a plastic bag. Kyle eventually determines that the woman whose skull he is repairing was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, and likely Caucasian (although no scalp remains, “swaths of sun-bleached brown hair had been found with the skeleton.”)

The woman’s killer, Kyle decides, must have been particularly vicious to have fractured the skull so utterly and minutely: the bones he is presented with “had been smashed with a blunt object, smashed, dented, and pierced, as if the unknown killer had wanted not merely to kill his victim but to obliterate her very being.” According to the medical examiner, the victim had also been dismembered, likely with an axe.

The skull of the dead woman becomes the object of Kyle’s fascination, a fascination that shades subtly into obsession as he completes his task and begins to investigate who the victim was before she was killed.

Although he views his task as akin to putting together a puzzle, there is something unsavoury about Kyle’s devotion to the human remains with which he works, something he himself has been made uncomfortable by. In his school art classes, Kyle proved adept at sculpting human figures, but quickly became embarrassed by “his interest in the human figure in extremis.” That Kyle’s work has a fetishistic quality is obvious, and not unnoticed by Vivian, his wife of four decades. “Your ‘fetishes’ – that’s what they are,” Vivian says at one point. “Skulls. Bones. Drawings of dead people. Dead women. I’ve seen them, they disgust me.” Kyle wonders whether Vivian has stumbled across his cache of “explicit anatomical drawings,” which he keeps “hidden away,” but at which, we are told, “he hadn’t glanced in years.”

At its core, “The Skull” is the story of Kyle’s anguished sexuality. He has always been sexually uninterested in his wife, and has a child with another woman, a fact he has kept hidden from his family. At sixty-seven years of age, he claims to be a reformed womanizer, but also admits that the last two times he had sex were a one-night stand with a woman he encountered at a conference and “a woman one-third his age, of ambiguous identity, possibly a prostitute.” Kyle clings to his idea of masculine virility, refusing to admit that he is aging (“He was not old. Didn’t look old, didn’t behave old, didn’t perceive of himself as old”) and shaving his head when he notices his hair is thinning. In case there were any doubt about this, Oates likens Kyle’s bald head to the head of a penis: it “tended to be olive-hued, veined, with a look of an upright male organ throbbing with vigor.”

The distance between the way Kyle sees himself and the reality of his apparent impotence with his wife on the one hand, and his obsession with the dead woman whose skull he is repairing on the other, provides much of the dramatic tension in Oates’s story. The mystery aspect of the story is on one level obvious, and never resolved: who killed the woman, who is eventually identified as Sabrina Jackson? But the other mystery that is made explicit in the story is the mystery of marriage, which in this case is specifically and insistently associated with the matter of sex: “For how was it possible,” Kyle wonders, “that a man with no temperament for a long-term relationship with one individual, no evident talent for domestic life, family, children can nonetheless remain married, happily it appeared, for more than four decades?”

The words “it appeared” are significant, testifying as they do to an element of self-delusion on Kyle’s part. Indeed, the more he works with Sabrina’s skull, the closer he feels to her, and the creepier he becomes. “Now you have a friend, dear,” he says to the skull at one point. “‘Kyle’ is your friend.” Repeatedly, he strokes the dead woman’s hair, once admiring the “lustrous/sinuous strands” that are “so soft” to the touch, on another occasion feeling the hair “charged with static electricity, as if alive.” The tenderness he feels for the murdered woman informs his hatred of the criminals responsible for her death, and his rejection of any notion of due process for them. It also underscores the perverted psychology that allows him to make a kind of deep connection with a dead woman’s skull and yet remain distant from his living, breathing wife.

Kyle imagines that Sabrina must have been pretty in life (“‘Pretty’ gets you into trouble,” he thinks) and is disappointed to discover that in fact she was homely, if not downright unattractive. Nevertheless, he decides to travel to Easton, Pennsylvania, to visit Sabrina’s mother in the hopes of drawing even closer to the unfortunate murder victim. (As he sets out on his journey his “heart beat with the avidity of a young lover.”)

The meeting with Sabrina’s mother does not go as planned, and Kyle is genuinely perturbed when the woman turns on him. The scene brings full circle a theme that has been teased out through the story: the idea that Kyle’s attraction to the dead or fleeting one-night stands has much to do with his own inflated sense of self-worth. “‘Dr. Cassity,'” says the young woman, “possibly a prostitute,” with whom he has sex, “I revere a man like you.” That reverence is the thing he is continually chasing, the validation of him as a potent, virile man. It is precisely the kind of reverence that marriage and domesticity render impossible. And it is the element that adds an additional layer of unease and horrifying implication to the story’s final image, of Kyle observing an anonymous teenage girl on a bicycle, feeling “such longing, such love,” and “stroking a sinewy throbbing artery just below his jawline.”

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