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Lost in the macabre

In disturbing tales of isolation and brutality, Oates leaves her characters — and sometimes, her readers — adrift

This newest effort is Joyce Carol Oates’s 23d collection of stories. This newest effort is Joyce Carol Oates’s 23d collection of stories. (Marion Ettlinger)
By Valerie Miner
Globe Correspondent / September 19, 2010

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Joyce Carol Oates is a smart, bold, insightful writer, but her short stories are puzzling at best. This accomplished novelist, incisive critic, and nimble essayist often dons the cape of the Goth to write short fiction. “Sourland,’’ Oates 23d collection of stories, is by turns shadowy, cold, threatening, degrading, and brutal. The macabre narratives, including tales of vicious rape and pedophilia, are replete with graphic horror.

In the title novella, “Sourland,” newly widowed Sophie Quinn copes with the first stages of shocking loneliness. Through the mail come oddly shaped envelopes from a furtive man named Kolk in Sourland, Minn. Enticed and unnerved by the attention, she wonders what Matt, her husband, would do. “Hard not to think, the husband had abandoned her to this space. Hadn’t he promised when they’d first fallen in love, I will protect you forever dear Sophie! — in an extravagance of speech meant to be playful and amusing and yet at the same time, serious, sincere. And so — he’d abandoned her.”

Gradually, Kolk, lures Sophie to his cabin in a mountain wilderness northwest of Grand Rapids. Sophie recalls their graduate days at the University of Wisconsin, where Matt did his PhD, and Kolk, a murky politico, went underground after a bombing incident.

Sophie knows she’s in peril as she waits for Kolk to collect her at the airport, but she can’t help herself. Like many of Oates’s characters, she seems impelled by danger. “From the lower part of his face metallic-grey whiskers sprang bristling yet as he drew closer Sophie could see that the left side of his face was badly scarred, disfigured — a part of the lower jaw was missing, a double row of teeth exposed as in a ghastly fixed smile.”

Oates’s fans may be distracted by parallels here with her life and work. The recently widowed author received her master’s degree from Madison where her husband, Raymond Smith, got his PhD. Sophie is eight years younger than Matt, just as Oates is eight years younger than Smith. Oates and Smith published another book, “The Sourlands,’’ by Jana Harris, through their excellent Ontario Review Press. Sourland Mountain is actually located near Princeton, where Oates teaches.

Kolk imprisons Sophie in his cabin and assaults her in a scene described in Oates’s most purple prose, “Like some bare, smooth-skinned creature she squirmed and thrashed beneath him, she could not breathe, another time he was smothering her, his hungry-sucking mouth on hers was suffocating her.’’

In these disturbing tales of isolation, estrangement, and abandonment, the only release is physical and psychological brutality. Although the 16 stories are self-contained, themes bleed from one to the other. Widowhood is also the stark landscape of “Pumpkin-Head” and “Probate.” Infidelity and drunk parents feature in several others. Throughout the book voyeurism is a major subtext.

“Honor Code,” one of the least creepy and perhaps the most heartbreaking of the tales, follows 10-year-old Aimée Stecke as she flees with her brother and mother, Devra, from Devra’s abusive boyfriend. They move in with big-hearted Aunt Georgia and affable cousin Sonny. All goes well until Sonny, defending Aunt Devra, kills a man. Sonny goes to jail. Georgia stops speaking to Devra. Aimée becomes a scholarship student at a posh boarding school. But Aimée, who Oates has afflicted with the chronic family self-destructiveness, paves the way to expulsion by reporting violations of the school’s hallowed honor code. “Even as I wrote the letter I understood that I was making a mistake and yet I’d had no choice.”

Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish among humiliation of the protagonist, his/her interlocutor, and the reader. From the beginning of “Amputee,” told in the first-person bitter voice of a young librarian, it’s clear something is missing. But what? Jane describes herself as “a reasonably attractive & healthy young woman of twenty-six with long curly rust-colored hair, hazel-green eyes and skin flawed only by tiny tear sized scars at my hairline — ninety-seven pounds, five-foot-three — small hard biceps and sculpted shoulder muscles just visible through my muslin blouses, silk shirts open at the throat & loose-crocheted tops. You might expect me to wear trousers like the other female librarians, but I prefer skirts. . . . In warm weather, quite short skirts: & why not?”

What’s missing are Jane’s legs. They were amputated above the knees after her drunk father crashed the car. We watch people gawking at Jane and Jane gawking back. She has an affair with a married library patron. Taboo fuels lust. “He is not a young man & yet every cell in his body yearns to impregnate me, the female; what remains of me, the stump-torso.’’

Perhaps the most haunting story is “Probate,” about Adrienne, who discovers shocking secrets about her dead husband during a nightmarish visit to the courthouse. After surviving the terrible revelations and the assaults of bureaucratic procedures and an incomprehensible body cavity search, Adrienne escapes into the snowy cold in paper slippers and further complicates her life by kidnapping a child.

You want to follow Adrienne home and, if not help her, at least see what happens. But “Probate,” like much of the book, ends abruptly leaving readers wallowing in characters’ sublimated anger and self-defeat. These are not fictions with provocative open endings a la Grace Paley, but rather unfinished pieces, both in content and style. With the exceptions of “Lost Daddy,” “Bonobo Momma,” and “Honor Code,” the sketchy stories lack character development. Just as husbands are abandoning widows, Oates abandons her cast of players. And her readers.

Valerie Miner is a novelist and short-story writer whose latest book is “After Eden.’’ She teaches at Stanford University. Her website is www.valerieminer.com.

SOURLAND
By Joyce Carol Oates
Ecco, 373 pp., $25.99