Oops! Joyce Carol Oates Does It Again with DIS MEM BER

I finished DIS MEM BER by Joyce Carol Oates, and for me, it’s kind of meh compared to some of her other works. I prefer the short-story collection HEAT, where the females are allowed to be mean and fierce. The female protagonists in this collection seem limp and boxed in, which maybe is the point—that the stories show how girls and women are forced into these positions by society. But I want heroes, dammit.


There are two stories about widows, which speak to Oates’s own experience, I think, after unexpectedly losing her first husband. And I’m glad to have a few short stories on the subject because I haven’t encountered many. In “Great Blue Heron,” a brother-in-law pressures a widow to sell the lakefront home she’s always lived in and “invest” in some technology that he deems worthy. The other widow story was the reason why I wanted to read this collection (“The Crawl Space”), since it won a Stoker Award this year. It’s a creepy, claustrophobic story about a widow missing the house she once lived in with her husband and feeling like she’s neglected his memory—eventually when she visits, she’s trapped with his possessions . It reminded me of “Hansel and Gretel” when the witch is pushed into the oven.

“Heartbreak” really hit me with younger sister, Steff, who’s terribly jealous of her older sister, Caitlin, and the attention she gets from her slightly older stepcousin Hunt. It ended completely different from how I pictured it. There’s gunplay going on in the story, and Chekhov has said if a gun’s introduced, it has to be used. I still wasn’t ready for the massive guilt, which I think is the right reaction to an “accidental” shooting. We need more stories showing the consequences.

“The Drowned Girl” seems to be a take on the real-life Elisa Lam story, where a young woman drowned in a hotel’s rooftop water tank (the Cecil Hotel) and contaminated the water supply. For more than a week, guests complained about the foul water, and then a security guard went to the top and found the bloated, dead body of the girl. Cops say she had a psychotic break (Lam was bipolar) and killed herself by accident, but there are suspicious things in the case: She was naked, the top to the tank was put back in place (too heavy to do one’s self), and the rape kit was never processed. Anyway, Joyce Carol Oates sets the story in a college town, where the woman is named Miri Kim, and she’s already died, but another student becomes obsessed with the case and water and pipes. It kind of reminded me of the protagonist who goes a little crazy in Joan Didion’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS.

Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates at the 2013 LA Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California campus on Saturday April 21, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Katy Winn/Invision/AP)

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Growing older is something that everybody–if they’re lucky–has to cope with. The condition differs, though, between the sexes. My sister has a police officer’s book of crime photographs from the turn of the last century, and I like to take it down every once in a while and torment myself by looking at the photos.

There’s a section of suicide photos and most of them are of old men, who have taken a shotgun to themselves. The impression I get from their blank, staring eyes is that they were all used up and had nothing left to give. With women, though, growing older is tied in with beauty and the diminishment of such. I can think of two examples in literature: a chapter in Little Women called “On the Shelf,” where the eldest March sister believes she is unlovely and dull after marrying and having a baby, driving her husband away. Another is Barbara Vine’s King Solomon’s Carpet, where Cecilia, the grandmother character, feels invisible, that nobody notices her, after she has passed a certain age.

Joan Didion’s book dwells on this issue with a story set in Hollywood, a place where one believes, after reading this story, that beauty is the only commodity a woman possesses, and once she no longer has that, she is worthless.

Maria, the main character of Play It As It Lays, has starred in two movies. One that she doesn’t like where her husband followed her around, shooting her daily routine, and then spliced the footage together, and one where she played a woman who is gang-raped by a group of bikers. Now Maria is having a difficult time getting film work and her estranged husband has eclipsed her as a director, glomming on instead to his current leading lady and flattering her.

Maria isn’t innocent. She’s had countless affairs while married to Carter, the husband she is in the process of divorcing in the story. And she becomes pregnant from one of these affairs, a pregnancy she’s pressured to end. Her first child Kate is rotten fruit and now hospitalized for an unknown condition. Maria tries to see her daughter often but is strongly discouraged from doing so.

After the illegal abortion (the book is set in the late 1960s), Maria goes off the rails. She becomes obsessive about driving on the California freeway, having to arrive at a certain time of day and only feeling complete when driving, traveling. She becomes frightened of pipes and plumbing and starts sleeping in hotels away from home or beside the swimming pool at night. As Maria becomes undone, her friend BZ also faces problems, but he is unable to cope, to play it as it lays.

Though the book was published in 1970, the issues are still applicable today. The things I overhear on the subway–sometimes, it seems, not much progress has been made. A group of Wall Street men in their mid- to late-twenties talking about women at bars once they turn thirty and are “hitting the wall.” According to this group of men, a woman becomes desperate at that age and is anxious to latch onto a man. They were all in agreement that such females should be avoided.