More Oates-Style Keyhole Realism

NOTHING has perplexed critics more about Joyce Carol Oates than her inclination to turn her prodigious talents toward the rendition of gloomy, gruesome, and macabre narratives. Generally we do not value this propensity, even though some of the greatest American writers, like Hawthorne and Melville, can be said to have composed horror stories.Yet, as this collection illustrates, Oates's representation of the macabre originates in the same formidable imaginative dexterity as her other stories and novels. Her latest collection again impresses one with the ability she has to palpably envision the circumstances and inner lives of fictional characters. The intense realism for which Oates is renowned is not the result of painstaking description, but of what might be called psychic trespass. Her keyhole realism takes readers beyond surface depiction to an intimacy prohibited in everyday social relations. Oates breaks the bounds of the ordinary. From there, it is only a step to the surreal and the paranormal. For example, the story line in the well-crafted tale "Family" incrementally slips from what seems a version of the present into an ominous future of civic anarchy and decay. Survival efforts cleave family and communal ties, and false rituals buoy counterfeit lives. In the hands of a lesser writer, the story itself would be little else than dystopian pulp fiction. Although this story does not completely escape that charge, it is acquitted by Oates's ability to plunge the reader into the dense particulars of an alternative world. The skill that allows Oates to describe a frightful future also permits her to persuasively convey feelings of desolation. In fact, what often makes her fiction so arduous is having to encounter the desperate desolation of another individual. In many ways, Joel, the protagonist in the story "House Hunting" is typical of Oates's alienated and uncertain characters. Having endured the death of his infant child and subsequent estrangement from his wife, Joel arranges for a transfer to the Philadelphia branch of his company. Somehow the task of locating a new house sets off a series of painful introspective moments. In the end he overcomes his social seclusion, but not before the reader has borne witness to the extent of his suffering. The way in which Oates works near the edge is apparent in "Naked," the story of a woman whose clothes are stolen by a band of children in a suburban wildlife preserve. Like many of Oates's characters, the woman is so emphatically self-conscious and estranged from other human beings that she will not call out for help. She cannot bear the idea of being seen as vulnerable, or being judged, even temporarily, out of control. Unable to seek assistance, the only viable remedy that occurs to her is to make her way home under cover of darkness. The woman's physical nakedness emerges as a fitting emblem for her mental isolation and for an individualism so extreme that it leads to social malfunction. The collection's title story, "Heat," winner of the 1990 O. Henry Award, is also a critique of asocial singularity, deftly expressed through the metaphor of the double. Rhea and Rhoda Kunkel are 11-year-old identical twins who do not want to be differentiated. They were the same girl," Oates writes, "they'd wanted it that way." Just as "Family" gradually withdraws from the ordinary to the extraordinary, so too "Heat" exits a Norman Rockwell summer to find itself in Stephen King country. Suffice it to say that the death of the Kunkel twins might have been prevented were they not such self-absorbed, norm-breaking daredevils. Likely enough, Oates's characters seldom have close friends, a fate shared by the stories themselves. While one can admire the prowess that brings them into existence, the claustrophobia that hangs over them like summer humidity is too stifling to want to revisit. Reading this collection, one has to wonder if posterity will admire Joyce Carol Oates's realism to the extent that her contemporaries have. It may be that in the belly of her fiery realism there rests a hard-boiled philosophy of life that we, in a self-indulgent era, find too unpalatable to call by its real name.

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