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Faithless – Tales of Transgression

By Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates started her literary life as a short story writer, and her skill in the form, when she is at her bewildering best, is unquestionable. That said, the fact that she has produced so much – twenty-three collections, and counting, in a forty year career (not to mention the twenty-nine novels, plus a few plays, and the odd poetry and essay collection) – means that she cannot be said to have published only masterpieces.

This variability in quality is evident in her new collection. Some, indeed the majority, of the stories are remarkably finely honed, with not one word too many, or out of place. Others, though not enough to put you off, seem like exercises in exploring a prescribed theme, and trail off unsatisfyingly with vague, insubstantial endings, instead of delivering the killer blow, or leaving one feeling suitably uncomfortable and chastened.

The title story is one of the most fully realised, its generational layering making it perfect New Yorker material. The narrator, whose grandmother had always been vilified in the family for abandoning her husband and children, discovers what really happened to her, an explanatory revelation never granted to her own mother.

While many of the stories deal with that favourite American obsession – adultery – Oates knows that there are other ways of being faithless, other forms of transgression. Thus, the venerated protagonist of ‘The High School Sweetheart: A Mystery’ slowly reveals that the life-long fascination with mystery, which has determined his choice of career as a mystery writer, arose because of his accidental yet unsolved murder of a girl he had a crush on when he was an adolescent. One can also be unfaithful while being faithful, as the scheming, careerist second wife of a famous artist demonstrates in ‘The Vampire’, as she ostensibly keeps her deceased husband’s flame.

Oates herself is obsessed with guns, and they feature in many stories here, most obviously ‘Gunlove’. She tries hard to be hard, but her work can sometimes inadvertently come across as brittle, as in the sub-Ballardesque ‘Lover’. And while she writes well in a male voice, the least successful pieces here are the ones where the central character is most distanced from her own experience, like the tough yet insecure teenage boy in ‘Tusk’.

For all that, she does write some wonderful sentences, with great images. The rejected husband in ‘The Vigil’ finds, ‘In this temporary life on the tenth floor of a high-rise apartment building he seemed often not to know what words meant. As if he’d wakened in a foreign country in which words resembling English words were spoken, but were not words he knew or could mimic.’ For the afore-mentioned mystery writer, irony is, ‘where heartbreak and anger conjoin.’

What strikes one most powerfully on reading this book, as with much honest American fiction, is just how messed up many Americans are and, therefore, American society is, with a self-centred innocence bordering on psychopathy. Mary Harney, and other prominent admirers of The American Dream, take note.

First published in the Irish Independent

 

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