Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Female of the Species

Shamefully, it appears the last Oates book I read was in Feb-March of 2017. I had a friend pick up this collection of short stories for me, a first edition in hardcover, with its dust jacket in okay condition. I read this and immediately remembered why I love reading Oates so much: her writing is so feverish, so shambolic, so atavistic, like she's tapped into the primordial darkness itself. Even when she's not quite firing on all cylinders, such as a couple in this collection, the stories still manage to thrill, to excite from just the prose itself. Lots of folks do not vibe with her sentences, either because they're too messy, too rickety or because there's just too much of them. I understand this complaint. But for me, her words feel like an explosion of feeling, a compulsion, an obsession. She must write and write she must. Though I haven't done this in eons, I will review each of the stories individually. Part of the reason why I'm doing this is because the stories themselves were so impactful and memorable that I'm easily able to differentiate them.

"So Help Me God" is a portrait of both an abusive relationship and a high school sweetheart situation. When she's only a teen, the protagonist falls in love with a very young cop who harbors some sinister darkness within. When they first meet, the cop pulls her over from her bike, asks her where she got the bike, where's her license, etc. He threatens to put her in jail and all the while, she's crying and sweating, just a little girl. He puts handcuffs on her, puts her in the back of the car. He revels he's just teasing, and the protagonist even reflects this is sexual and physical harassment, but there's an obvious frisson of sexual excitement. The allure of the punishment, of the humiliation, the crying, the sweating through thin summer clothes. It's all very feverish and sexy, even while at the same time, disgusting and off-putting. I suppose one could argue Oates is implying the girl is complicit in her own, later abuse, but I'd say the story is more complicated than that, especially as at the end, the protagonist finds a measure of self-actualization.

"The Banshee" was the story in the collection when I knew I would love this book. A young girl with a brand new baby brother finds a novel way to attract her parents' attention during a busy cocktail party. This is the true example of suspense: I barely remember reading this, as I tore through it as fast as I could, just to get to the end. It's a mixture of heady delirium and careful accumulation of physical details, such as how hot the baby feels, how heavy he is in her arms etc. 

"Doll: A Romance of the Mississippi" is the kind of fucked up shit Oates is known for: a road trip story about a father who prostitutes his daughter and the bloody way by which she rebels. Not my favourite piece as Oates always finds the creepiest way to describe pubescent bodies. The effect is purposeful but it's transparent and tiresome. 

"Madison at Guignol" is my favourite story in the collection. What starts as a cliched portrait of rich people, with the usual easy targets of consumerism and narcissism ends up in the realm of the Weird and the Eerie. The closest this collection comes to pure horror. A rich trophy wife in search of the perfect belt for an outfit demands entrance into a store after hours, only to discover a marvelously macabre end. The "Guignol" of the title is no mistake.

"The Haunting" has a bit too much of Oates' tendency to vocalize as a child. Writing in a child's voice is not Oates' strong suit but it's a well from which she continues to draw. In this one, a sister and her old brother grapple with life after their father's mysterious death and the endless cages of rabbits in the basement of their new home. A good one but not the collection's finest.

"Hunger" is one of the longer pieces and its careful construction and suspense makes it one of the better stories. A rich trophy wife on weekend holiday at the beach comes across a beautiful young man with a mysterious background. Slowly and inexorably they are drawn together until they consummate the relationship. But when she leaves to go home, back to her life, the young man turns up at her house. They take risks, they make love. Again, it's the feverish feeling the prose creates, like your head is swimming and you're not in control of your body. You make these potentially disastrous mistakes but you can't help yourself. Oates' debt to noir shows in this one, as the protagonist can't stop herself but the taboo and the illicit are always a draw. 

"Tell Me You Forgive Me?" is the most structural ingenious of any of the stories. A mother attempts to confess a terrible crime to her daughter and from there, the story works backwards chronologically. I wasn't on board with this one at first, as it opens with a letter, one of my least favourite mediums of literature, but once I realized where the story was going, I was enthralled. The crime at the heart of this story isn't nearly as important as how the crime affects the characters, an important distinction often missed by more salacious writers (and not to say Oates can't be salacious. Often she revels in the illicit and squalor). "Tell Me You Forgive Me?" is perhaps more entertaining as a concept than as a story, but still very compelling.

"Angel of Wrath" has Oates leaning into the more fucked up shit again. Here, a mute giant previously abused by his mother becomes obsessed with a single mom and stalks her, leading her to take drastic action. Sometimes I get the feeling Oates just piles on coarse details not for the sake of the story but for an effect, and while this usually works in her favour, here it's cheap, tawdry, like she's slumming and not in the good way. Most of the giant's life and physical presence feels this way. Even though I loved where the story went, this could have been better.

"Angel of Mercy" was a tough read, following a young nurse in a stroke and tumour ward in a hospital, where patients deteriorate at an alarming speed and become empty husks, mummies full of piss and shit and nothing else. The nurse is quickly enthralled by one patient, a handsome rich kid disfigured in a car accident of his own fault. The lengths she goes to care for him begin to stretch her sanity, her professionalism. This was a great read, full of the depravity Oates is good at while still maintaining a successful affective pitch.  

Overall, a great collection. The Doll-Master might have the edge on this one because it's a bit shorter and the individual stories are a bit tighter. Even still, this is exactly the kind of work I expect from Oates and she delivered in full force. Highly recommended. 

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