31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 11: “Black Dahlia & White Rose” by Joyce Carol Oates

May 11, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From Black Dahlia & White Rose

Black_Dahlia_White_RoseElizabeth Short was twenty-two years old in 1947. Born in Massachusetts, she had come to Hollywood with dreams of stardom. She ended up being savagely murdered, her body severely disfigured, bisected at the torso, exsanguinated, and left obscenely posed in a Los Angeles field. Nicknamed the Black Dahlia by the tabloids, Short’s murder remains one of the most notorious unsolved homicides in Los Angeles history.

The case is a source of abiding fascination for amateur sleuths, true-crime buffs, gorehounds, and those with an interest in the corrosive aspects of celebrity culture. Unsurprisingly, it captures the imagination of Joyce Carol Oates, who has forged a five-decade-long career examining, at least in part, a particularly American strain of violence, a strain quite frequently associated with race, gender, and class.

In an essay entitled “Why Is Your Writing So Violent?,” Oates addresses the question thus: “Since it is commonly understood that serious writers, as distinct from entertainers or propagandists, take for their natural subjects the complexity of the world, its evils as well as its goods, it is always an insulting question; and it is always sexist.” This is somewhat disingenuous: the question was not “Why is your writing violent?” but “Why is your writing so violent?” Why, that is, over a career that has been staggeringly, almost incomprehensibly, prolific and protean, shifting focus among genres, modes of storytelling, narrative voices and approaches, does Oates’s authorial sensibility always seem to circle back around to the subject of violence?

Elsewhere in her essay, Oates takes umbrage at the implication that as a woman writer, she should follow in the footsteps of Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf and confine herself to more reliably domestic or subjective material: “The implication is that if Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf had lived in Detroit, they might have been successful in ‘transcending’ their environment and writing novels in which not a hint of ‘violence’ could be detected.” This neglects, on the one hand, the fact that most of the violence in Oates’s fiction occurs in the domestic sphere and, on the other, that the initial question (once again) refers to much more than “a hint” of violence in her work.

A writer does not choose her sensibility. Oates’s sensibility is, above all, grounded in the history and psychology of America, a country that was born in revolution and that remains steeped in social, personal, and political violence. It is also, thanks to Hollywood, a country that maintains a fraught and largely contradictory relationship with celebrity. One of Oates’s most scabrous novels – Zombie – is a first-person account of a serial killer modelled on Jeffrey Dahmer, who (along with Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, et al.) has some claim to celebrity status in the American psyche.

Unlike Zombie, “Black Dahlia & White Rose” focuses not on the perpetrator of violent crime, but the victim. This is also typical of Oates, who, as a feminist writer, is deeply concerned with the gendered nature of violence. “War, rape, murder and the more colorful minor crimes evidently fall within the exclusive province of the male writer,” Oates comments in her essay, “just as, generally, they fall within the exclusive province of male action.”

In the story, the voice of Elizabeth (Betty) Short narrates her experience posthumously, or, as she puts it, “post mortem“: “Post mortem is this state I am in, now. That you do not know exists when you are ‘alive’ & you cannot guess how vast & infinite post mortem is for it is all of the time – forever and ever – after you have died.” In fractured and stuttering prose – which resembles, perhaps not incidentally, a police officer’s crime-scene notes – Betty recalls her encounter with Dr. Mortenson (Dr. M.), colloquially known as The Bone Doctor. Dr. M. “did seem like a ‘gentleman,'” Betty claims, “though old & starched-stuffy as hell but clearly he had $$$ & seemed kindly disposed and not a tightwad.”

What Betty doesn’t know is that Dr. M. has a history with a venal celebrity photographer named K. Keinhardt, who shoots nude women for men’s magazines and pinup calendars. Their relationship is this: Dr. M. pays Keinhardt a sum of money ($25 each time, thought Keinhardt eventually ups it to $35) to watch through a peephole as the photographer shoots his naked models. One of these models is a shy young aspiring actress named Norma Jeane Baker, who would later find immortality as Marilyn Monroe.

Oates’s masterstroke in “Black Dahlia & White Rose” is to imagine that Betty and Norma Jeane were roommates, and to alternate the narrative POV to include Norma Jeane and Keinhardt’s voices alongside Betty’s. By providing a variety of perspectives, Oates is able to zero in on the poisonous aspect of celebrity culture, which forces the women who enter it to divest themselves of their own identities and individuality in the name of selling a manufactured image to a willing public.

Norma Jeane and Betty Short both found fame – albeit of a very different nature – but both had their own selves obliterated in the process. Both women lost even the claim to their own names: In Oates’s story, Norma Jeane is told that her Christian name is “an Okie name,” and Baker is “dull.” Marilyn Monroe, by contrast, “did not seem real but a concoction like meringue, that would melt in the slightest rain.” For her part, Betty loses her identity along with her life, being remembered in the popular psyche through the moniker attached to her mutilated corpse by a rapacious media hungry for a sensational story.

The women who submit themselves to the celebrity machine also find themselves prey to the depredations of an exploitative male-dominated industry that can only ironically be called the “entertainment” business. “Guess what I paid Norma Jeane?” Keinhardt asks after he manages to talk her into posing naked for him (having accurately recognized that the starlet is “desperate for money & broken-hearted,” her film career “stalled at zero”). “Fifty bucks. I made nine hundred!” Keinhardt dehumanizes Norma Jeane even further, referring to her as “a piece of candy – to be sucked.”

In Oates’s conception, the debasement of this culture is directly responsible for harm inflicted on the women who work in it; unbeknownst to Betty, it is Norma Jeane that Dr. M. had his eye on initially, having witnessed her posing for Keinhardt. Here Oates elides the distinction between those who inflict harm on women by exploiting or degrading them in the process of making a buck, and those who inflict physical harm on them through murder and desecration. She also asks provocative questions about the role fate plays in all of our lives: if Norma Jeane missed being the Black Dahlia killer’s victim merely by chance, what does that say about the nebulousness of celebrity, and the capricious nature of those of us who consume it?

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.”

The view from here: Julian Barnes and the art of reading

November 15, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story. Julian Barnes; $19.95 paper 978-0-345-81300-8, 244 pp., Vintage Canada

Julian Barnes is a deeply serious reader. This is not to say he is joyless – far from it. The seventeen essays (and one story) in his new collection testify to the vivacity with which Barnes approaches the reading act, as well as the range of his interests. However, if you’re looking for discussions of recent bestsellers or the latest popcorn fantasy series for young adults, you won’t find them here. Instead, you’ll discover a triptych of essays devoted to the high modernist Ford Madox Ford, an appreciation of the 18th century French moralist Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort, and a short piece on Félix Fénéon, whose uncategorizable work Nouvelles en trois lignes (re-released by New York Review Books in 2007 as Novels in Three Lines) Barnes calls “the literary equivalent of a cocktail olive.”

France represents one focal point for Barnes’s sensibility as a reader, at least as evidenced by the pieces on offer here. Through the Window is roughly divided into three parts. The first deals with British writers; the second, central sequence of essays focuses on French writers; and the final part looks at a handful of Americans. These sections segue organically into one another. Kipling, the “demotic, pragmatic, self-educated celebrant of the British empire,” whose fascination with France was by no means uncomplicated, serves as the pivot between the first and second parts of the book, while a pair of American writers – Wharton and Hemingway – each of whom spent a considerable amount of time in France, form the bridge between the second and third parts.

Barnes is a classicist, and implies his disinterest in much current writing by largely ignoring it. The only living writers he deals with in this volume are Lorrie Moore, Michel Houellebecq, and Joyce Carol Oates (the last in a brief, and not altogether laudatory, consideration of her memoir A Widow’s Story). He does talk about Lydia Davis, but only in the context of her translation of Madame Bovary (a “linguistically careful version” that sometimes “takes us too far away from English, and makes us less aware of Flaubert’s prose than of Davis being aware of Flaubert’s prose”).

Collectively, the essays in the book paint a picture of Barnes as a thoughtful connoisseur, an enthusiast who never allows his enthusiasm to blind him to a work’s faults. Even at his most effusive, Barnes is rarely platitudinous. The one exception might be the opening essay on Penelope Fitzgerald, an author to whom Barnes makes no secret of being in thrall. This essay does offer some repudiation of the reputation Fitzgerald was afforded in the press, a reputation “attended by a marked level of male diminishment.” It also suggests that perhaps Fitzgerald won the Booker for the wrong work, “which would hardly be revolutionary in the history of the prize” (a truth Barnes should be intimately familiar with, one can’t help but remark).

As a careful reader, Barnes notices things many others might miss. Hemingway, Barnes is quick to point out, is often characterized as the apotheosis of machismo, when in fact he wrote more persistently and convincingly about cowardice and inaction. John Updike, “delineator of conventional, continuing America, is incessantly writing about flight.” Barnes shows himself to be an unapologetic advocate of Updike, claiming the Rabbit Angstrom quartet as “the greatest post-war American novel.” His piece on Updike (actually two pieces, published in the New York Review of Books and the Guardian shortly after the older writer’s death in 2009) also illustrates the ways in which Updike might have been one of the finest and most unsentimental literary examiners of aging and death, perhaps one reason (along with his precisely detailed, demanding prose style) he appears so off-putting to many younger readers.

Through the Window opens with a preface entitled “A Life with Books,” in which the author traces the roots of his bibliophilia and makes an impassioned case for the continuing relevance of books as objects. He quotes Updike (again), who late in life expressed despair about what he considered to be the dying art of printed literature. “I am more optimistic,” Barnes asserts, “both about reading and about books. There will always be non-readers, bad readers, lazy readers – there always were. Reading is a majority skill but a minority art. Yet nothing can replace the exact, complicated, subtle communion between absent author and entranced, present reader.” In the essays that follow, Barnes proves himself a very good reader, indeed: one who elevates the skill to art. Taken together, his essays on writers and books he admires also illustrate a separate assertion from his preface, one that seeks to debunk a myth all too common in our modern mindset: “When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.” Through the Window is an exuberant, intelligent plunge into life.

31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 15: “The Lady with the Little Dog” by Anton Chekhov & “The Lady with the Pet Dog” by Joyce Carol Oates

May 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Lady with the Little Dog

From Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Selected Early Stories

The first marked distinction between Anton Chekhov’s classic story of adulterous love and Joyce Carol Oates’s revisionist take on it is structural: whereas Chekhov tells his story chronologically, Oates begins her version after the affair has putatively ended. The scene in question appears in both stories, but its relative positioning gives it different weight in the latter. In both cases, the female object of desire, Anna, goes to the theatre where she is confronted by her male lover.

In Chekhov’s version of the tale, Dimitri Dimitrich Gurov, the protagonist, has returned to Moscow after a sojourn to Yalta, during which he met and bedded Anna Sergeyevna, whom he first spies walking her white Pomeranian. (No one in Yalta knows who this mysterious woman is, referring to her simply as “the lady with the little dog.”) More than a month after his return home to his wife and children, Gurov finds himself consumed by thoughts of Anna and their time together. He had assumed that the memory of his brief fling would fade with time, that Anna “would become misted over … and only occasionally would he dream of her touching smile,” but he finds that precisely the opposite is the case. Gurov becomes haunted by Anna, who invades his thoughts, which take on a kind of obsessive quality:

He did not simply dream of Anna Sergeyevna – she followed him everywhere, like a shadow, watching him. When he closed his eyes he saw her as though she were before him and she seemed prettier, younger, gentler than before. … In the evenings she would look at him from the bookcase, from the fireplace, from a corner; he could hear her breathing, the gentle rustle of her dress. In the street he followed women with his eyes, seeking someone who resembled her.

Gurov is startled by the strength of his feelings for Anna; he has had many affairs in the past, all of which began in an “easy and amusing” fashion, only to develop into “an enormous, extraordinarily complex problem with respectable people – especially Muscovites, who are so hesitant, so inhibited.” Yet despite “[r]epeated – and in fact bitter – experience,” Gurov continues to embark on new affairs, in part because he cherishes the novelty and the “charming, light-hearted adventure,” and in part because he has grown weary of his own wife, “a tall, black-browed woman” who is “plain-spoken, pretentious, respectable” as well as being “an avid reader” who “followed the latest reforms in spelling.”

So, when Gurov, so easily bored under most circumstances, finds himself unable to stop thinking about Anna, he feigns an excuse to travel to her home town, where he locates her at an opening night performance of an operetta called (probably not coincidentally) The Geisha, which she is attending with her husband.

The scene is a turning point in Chekhov’s story. After reacting to Gurov’s appearance with abject terror, thinking that her husband will learn of her affair, the two secret themselves in a staircase where Anna confesses to Gurov that in the time they have been apart she has “only existed by thinking about” him. The two part, but Anna begins visiting Moscow, where they carry on their assignation.

By placing the scene in the theatre at the opening of her story, Oates decontextualizes the relationship between Anna and her lover, making the situation, and the motivations behind it, initially unclear for those unfamiliar with Chekhov’s original, and for those who are, drawing attention to the altered circumstances of her own telling.

In addition to the structural shifts Oates imposes upon the story, the other essential difference is the point of view. In Oates’s story, it is Anna who serves as the main figure, not her lover, who is, significantly, unnamed. If Chekhov, who wrote his story in 1899, was interested, at least in part, in examining the social confines of late-19th century Russian society – in which, although propriety was paramount, a patriarchal social structure made it easy for a married man to engage in serial extra-marital affairs – Oates is concerned with the effect such an affair might have on a woman in 1972 America, a society no less patriarchal or puritanical. By placing the scene in the theatre right up front, and dramatizing it from Anna’s point of view, Oates heightens the fearful discombobulation that her protagonist experiences at glimpsing her lover: “Her blood rocked in her body, draining out of her head … she was going to faint … They stared at each other. They gave no sign of recognition. Only when he took a step forward did she shake her head no – no – keep away. It was not possible.”

Anna’s panic, we come to realize, is born in part from her fear that her husband will learn of her affair, but in part from the shame that she continues to feel over her actions, shame that induces her, upon her return to Ohio from Nantucket, where the affair occurred, to “[draw] a razor blade lightly across the inside of her arm, near the elbow, to see what would happen.” Anna’s shame is a function of what she sees as her betrayal of her husband – it is directed outward, toward another person. Her husband, by contrast, feels his own shame, but this is attached to his perceived sexual inadequacies – his shame is directed inward, toward himself. The two are brought together in a searing paragraph in which Anna ruminates on her situation following the encounter at the theatre:

In January her lover spied on her: she glanced up and saw him, in a public place, in the DeRoy Symphony Hall. She was paralyzed with fear. She nearly fainted. In this faint she felt her husband’s body, loving her, working its love upon her, and she shut her eyes harder to keep out the certainty of his love – sometimes he failed at loving her, sometimes he succeeded, it had nothing to do with her or her pity or her ten years of love for him, it had nothing to do with a woman at all. It was a private act accomplished by a man, a husband or lover, in communion with his own soul, his manhood.

Oates describes the husband’s body “working its love upon her,” indicating an act performed to her, not with her; when they have sex, he is “a little rough with her, as if impatient with himself,” and when he tells her that he loves her, he does so “fiercely, angrily.” His repeated question, “Did I hurt you?” is always met with the same stock response, “You didn’t hurt me.” “Always this hot flashing of shame between them,” Oates writes, “the shame of her husband’s near failure, the clumsiness of his love.” Anna’s assertion that the husband didn’t hurt her is as much a balm to his fragile male ego as it is a transparent lie.

But if her husband is depicted “working his love upon her,” this is hardly the only way Anna is denied agency in Oates’s story. Significantly, the titular canine, which belongs to Anna in Chekhov’s original, is the property of Anna’s lover in Oates’s version. “The lady with the pet dog” is the title of a sketch Anna’s lover makes at the beach in Nantucket, as the dog ferries back and forth between Anna and her lover’s blind son, who keeps calling out to it. Anna’s paralysis is tied into the lack of agency over her own life; taking the other man as her lover is a conscious attempt to try to impose some authority onto her situation: “She was frightened, yet it seemed to her necessary to give in; she had to leave Nantucket with that act completed, an act of adultery, an accomplishment she would take back to Ohio and her marriage.” Anna’s repeated thoughts of suicide are provoked in large measure by the notion that killing herself would be an act she might accomplish out of her own volition, free from the dictates of any men in her life.

Both Chekhov’s story and Oates’s end with the protagonists reaching an epiphany about the state of their marriages, but as with the stories’ openings, the emphasis is very different in each case. For his part, Gurov realizes that he has fallen in love with Anna – indeed, he has fallen in love for the first time in his life. “Then they conferred for a long time and wondered how they could free themselves from the need to hide, to deceive, to live in different towns, to see each other only after long intervals. How could they break free from these intolerable chains?” Chekhov’s insistence that “both of them clearly realized that the end was far, far away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning” is a fairly definite indication that Gurov and Anna will leave their respective spouses and set themselves up together, if and for as long as their society will allow them to do so. What is significant here is that the societal construct remains unquestioned: it is not the patriarchy that is at fault, nor even the institution of marriage, it is merely the inconvenient timing of meeting each other at a point in their lives when they were already committed to others.

Oates, by contrast, pushes Anna much farther in the direction of deconstructing the societal strictures that had created her paralysis in the first place. Her moment of realization is more dangerous than Gurov’s, because it calls into question the entire fabric of her society and its proscriptions:

And suddenly, joyfully, she felt a miraculous calm. This man was her husband, truly – they were truly married, here in this room – they had been married haphazardly and accidentally for a long time. In another part of the city she had another husband, a “husband,” but she had not betrayed that man, not really. This man, whom she loved above any other person in the world, above even her own self-pitying sorrow and her own life, was her truest lover, her destiny. And she did not hate him, she did not hate herself any longer; she did not wish to die; she was flooded with a strange certainty, a sense of gratitude, of pure, selfless energy. It was obvious to her that she had, all along, been behaving correctly; out of instinct.

“Why are you so happy?” her lover asks her upon noticing the change that has come over her. “What’s wrong?” Although Oates makes it clear that Anna loves the man she is with in the hotel room “above any other person in the world,” his ironic question is indicative of an unconscious nervousness at the awakening of her previously untapped independence, the notion that she does not have to live according to the code that her society imposes upon her. Gurov and Anna face a “complicated and difficult” period because they have admitted their love for one another but are resigned to live within the confines of their era. In Oates’s feminist retelling, Anna, like Nora at the end of A Doll’s House, breaks the shackles of the life that has been imposed upon her and begins to chart her own course. Both endings open outward, but with very different, very divergent implications.

Tempus fugit, etc.

October 1, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

The fall book season is now well underway and true to form, the preponderance of book festivals, awards lists, launches, and other noisy ephemera of the literary world serve only to emphasize how much I haven’t read. Practically daily, I’m asked if I’ve read the latest buzz book, or some obscure outrider from a small Norwegian publisher, and my answer is almost always a strained, “No.” This is inevitably accompanied by downcast eyes and a shameful countenance, despite the fact that no single human being could possibly read even a fraction of the books that get published in a given year.

Writing in Maclean’s, Sarah Weinman suggests that this year’s crop of fall fiction is less impressive than 2009’s, “which featured new books by awards regulars such as Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, A.S. Byatt, Jonathan Lethem, and John Irving. By comparison, this year’s slate seems a bit thin.” All I can say in response is that if my to-read pile (a.k.a. the “wishful thinking” pile or the “Hail Mary” pile) is any indication, there is a veritable cornucopia of interesting fiction out now or forthcoming in the next few weeks.

Here is a short list of titles I’m looking forward to reading, presuming I ever get the chance:

C by Tom McCarthy: Zadie Smith called McCarthy’s debut novel, 2005’s Remainder, “one of the great English novels of the past 10 years.” The new book is an historical novel set at the turn of the 20th century and focusing on Serge Carrefax, the son of an inventor who runs a school for deaf children. Carrefax suffers from “black bile,” competes with Marconi to develop wireless technology, and travels to an archeological dig in Egypt. The Guardian calls the book, which is the odds-on favourite to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, “a 1960s-style anti-novel that’s fundamentally hostile to the notion of character and dramatises, or encodes, a set of ideas concerning subjectivity.”

Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates: John Gardner famously referred to “that alarming phenomenon Joyce Carol Oates,” and in a career that has spanned close to five decades, she has done her best to live up to this description. Now in her seventies, Oates still averages two to three books each year; even her most devoted fans find it difficult to keep abreast of her astonishing literary output. Sourland, her latest collection of short stories, was described in The New York Times as “angry and tough and deeply, viscerally unsettling.”

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Well, come on.

When Fenlon Falls by Dorothy Ellen Palmer: Set during the summer of 1969, this debut novel from Canadian author Palmer tells the story of Jordan May March, a 14-year-old adoptee who was conceived during Hurricane Hazel and concocts a diary in which she imagines different circumstances for her conception. The metafictional narrative involves the CHUM Top 30 hit parade, JFK, Queen Elizabeth, and a caged, butter-tart-eating bear named Yogi.

Room by Emma Donoghue: Loosely based on the real-life case of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian who kept his daughter imprisoned for 24 years and fathered several children by her, Donoghue’s novel was overlooked by this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize jury but has received glowing accolades both here and abroad and has landed a spot on the 2010 Man Booker Prize shortlist. Narrated in the voice of five-year-old Jack, the book is split into two halves: the first taking place within the small room that has been his only home since birth, the second following his release with his mother, and centred on the new set of perils he must navigate in the outside world.

Nemesis by Philip Roth: Also in his seventies, Roth is not quite as prolific as Oates, but has been averaging one book a year for the last four years or so. His new novel, set in 1944, tells the story of Bucky Cantor, a polio victim whose ill health and bad eyesight have kept him out of the war. As the polio epidemic begins to inflict the small Jewish enclave of Weequahic, New Jersey, writes Tim Martin in the Telegraph, “Cantor finds himself pinned between desire and duty, and – since this is late Roth, after all – being dragged, grimly and inexorably, under life’s steamroller.”

I’m a Registered Nurse Not a Whore by Anne Perdue: I was on the jury that awarded Anne Perdue the Marina Nemat Award for creative writing from the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, and couldn’t be happier to see her first book of short fiction making an appearance with Insomniac Press. Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall says that Perdue’s “voice is just as convincing in the body of a teenage dish-pig, an alcoholic grandmother, or a raging suburban dad. Her characters feel as real as anyone you’ve ever met; they’re scared and scarred, with wells of kindness pooling beneath the skin. And the universe they inhabit is much like ours – a cracked one, where fury, joy, madness, or molten lava could burst through the surface at any moment.”

The Hair Wreath and Other Stories by Halli Villegas: The publisher of Toronto-based Tightrope Books has a new collection of dark fantasy stories out with ChiZine Publications, a small press that is also publishing new work by Craig Davidson and Tony Burgess this season. So, basically, I want to read ChiZine’s entire fall list.

And there you have it. Books that command my attention this fall, if I can manage to tear myself away from the rest of my life for long enough to get to them. Stay tuned.

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

August 25, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? Selected Early Stories.

c1815Despite 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.