Joyce Carol Oates got some great reviews for her most recent short story collection Sourland and was only doing one event to promote the book (as far as I could tell). Luckily, for me, the Sourland reading took place in New York, so I’m almost able to graduate to two hands when counting the times I’ve seen Joyce Carol Oates live. (I don’t count the time I passed by her at Bryant Park.) Since the last time I’ve seen her, her husband has died, and in Sourland, it seems that Oates is coming to terms with his unexpected death by mining the experience over and over again, covering aspects in her different short stories.
Many of the stories’ protagonists are widowed women who have unexpectedly lost their partners and are trying to figure out how to live, and most of the stories are about lost love. A couple of the widowed characters have to deal with the experience of probate court, which appears to be humiliating, justifying who you are and what you are entitled to based on how your relationship is documented on paper–marriage certificate, death certificate, etc. Another widow finds herself restricted to two rooms that she cannot avoid: the kitchen and the bedroom. The rest of her house has become ghost rooms because she can’t be in them without being haunted by memories of her husband. Love comes up again and again in these stories, especially how one in a relationship loves more and the other less.
My favorite story in the collection, though, stars a young woman who’s twenty-six years old and sports a pair of prosthetic legs. The best part about the character is how she flaunts her disability. Jane dreaded people’s stares as a child after the accident, but now she invites them, dressing up to show off her prostheses in short-short skirts and patterned tights. She wears these clothes like armor, announcing, “Here I am!”:
“On this windy April day I was wearing a pleated skirt made of cream-colored wool flannel, that resembled a high school cheerleader’s skirt, & I was wearing a crimson satin blouse with a V-neckline glittering with thin gold chains & small crystal beads, & if you dared to lean over, to peer at my legs, or what was meant to represent my “legs,” you would see the twin prostheses, shiny plastic artificial legs & steel pins & on my (small) feet eyelet stockings & black patent leather “ballerina slippers.”
“Amputee” reminds me so much of my favorite Flannery O’Connor story “Good Country People,” but Joyce Carol Oates goes much further than Flannery was able to. What Flannery hinted at–well, Oates fills in with lurid detail. And it’s ugly and beautiful.