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)

Joyce Carol Oates Talks the Art of Horror

Joyce Carol Oates has been writing since before she could read. She remembers making books by drawing in tablets and coloring and scribbling, and her characters were animals—chickens and cats—immortalized in her first novel The Cat House, which she still has somewhere.


Her very first books were Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking-Glass, which also terrified her. Oates believes a lot of horror comes from those first impressions formed during childhood when one is trying to figure out the rules of the world. “Children are particularly susceptible to images of the grotesque, for children are learning to monitor what is ‘real’ and what is ‘not real’; what is benign, and what not…The earliest and most horrific image of my childhood, as deeply embedded in my consciousness as any ‘real’ event (and I lived on a small farm, where the slaughtering of chickens must have been frequent) sprang at me out of a seemingly benign children’s book, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking-Glass,” says Oates, when “Alice escapes the nightmare prospect of being eaten…”

Looking back on her own childhood, Oates says, “Like most children, I was probably afraid of a variety of things. The unknown? The possibility of those queer fortuitous metamorphoses that seem to overtake certain of Carroll’s characters? Physical pain? Getting lost?…My proclivity for the irreverent and the nonsensical was either inspired by Carroll or confirmed by him. I was always, and continue to be, an essentially mischievous child. This is one of my best-kept secrets.”


Oates believes that readers crave dark, scary fiction just the same as happy stories. “This predilection for art that promises we will be frightened by it, shaken by it, at times repulsed by it seems to be as deeply imprinted in the human psyche as the counter-impulse toward daylight, rationality, scientific skepticism, truth and the ‘real,’” says Oates.

Reading horror fiction is a way for one to re-experience childhood, according to Oates, believing completely in what is around them. “One criterion for horror fiction is that we are compelled to read it swiftly, with a rising sense of dread, and so total a suspension of ordinary skepticism, we inhabit the material without question and virtually as its protagonist; we can see no way out except to go forward. Like fairy tales, the art of the grotesque and horror renders us children again, evoking something primal in the soul,” she says.

Oates has received a fair amount of criticism for her horror work. When her serial killer novella Zombie came out in 1995, New York Times critic Steven Marcus chastised her for her “longstanding interest in the extreme, the gruesome, the bizarre, and violent in American life” and believed her protagonist, serial killer Quentin, was supposed to be a representation of American society. That time, Oates wrote back in a letter to the editor that he had misread her novel, but in general, she says, “A writer who has published as many books as I have has developed, of necessity, a hide like a rhino’s, while inside there dwells a frail, hopeful butterfly of a spirit.”


As a female writer, she feels that she is able to hide to a certain extent because of her sex. “Being a woman allows me a certain invisibility,” says Oates. “Like Ellison’s Invisible Man. Because a woman, being so mechanically judged by her appearance, has the advantage of hiding within it—of being absolutely whatever she allows herself to be, in contrast with what others imagine her to be. I feel no connection at all with my physical appearance and have often wondered whether this was a freedom any man—writer or not—might enjoy.”

Oates’s daily schedule mainly consists of writing, revising, and reading. “I haven’t any formal schedule, but I love to write in the morning, before breakfast. Sometimes the writing goes so smoothly that I don’t take a break for many hours—and consequently have breakfast at two or three in the afternoon on good days,” says Oates.

“When I complete a novel I set it aside, and begin work on short stories, and eventually another long work. When I complete that novel, I return to the earlier novel and rewrite much of it. In the meantime the second novel lies in a desk drawer. Sometimes I work on two novels simultaneously, though one usually forces the other into the background. The rhythm of writing, revising, writing, revising, et cetera, seems to suit me.”

Oates interrupts her writing life for chores and hones her observation skills that way, looking for the story. “I enjoy the much-maligned occupation of housewifery,” she says. “I like to cook, to tend plants, to garden, to do simple domestic things, to stroll around shopping malls and observe the qualities of people, overhearing snatches of conversations, noting people’s appearances, their clothes, and so forth. Walking and driving a car are part of my life as a writer, really. I can’t imagine myself apart from these activities.”


Oates’s next collection of psychological horror will be coming out later in 2016—The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror. Here’s an excerpt from “The Doll-Master”:


When I was five years old, Baby Emily disappeared from my room.

I was so surprised! I looked under the bed and in the closet and in each of my bureau drawers and then I looked in all these places again as well as beneath the covers at the foot of the bed but Baby Emily was gone.


I ran to my mother, crying. I asked my mother where Baby Emily was. My mother told me that my father “didn’t think it was a good idea” for me to be playing with a doll at my age. Dolls are for girls, she said. Not boys. “Daddy just thought it might be better to take the doll away before you got ‘too attached’…” Guiltily my mother spoke, and there was softness in her voice, but nothing I said could change her mind, no matter how I cried, or how angry I became, slapping and kicking at her and saying how I hated her, my mother did not change her mind because my father would not allow it. “He said he’d ‘indulged’ you long enough. And he blames me.”


In place of Baby Emily who was so sweet and placid and smelled of foam-rubber, my father had instructed my mother to buy me an “action toy”—one of the new-model expensive ones—a U.S. Navy SEAL robot-soldier that came fully armed, and could move forward across the room, empowered by a battery.


I would never forgive either of them, I thought. But particularly, I would never forgive him.





Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque by Joyce Carol Oates

The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III edited by Philip Gourevitch

Joyce Carol Oates at Her Scary Best with Daddy Love

The last couple of Joyce Carol Oates books that I read I haven’t loved (Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You and My Sister, My Love), and one from last year, Mudwoman, I couldn’t even finish. I had been particularly looking forward to Mudwoman because it was billed as a horror novel, my favorite, but I got one hundred pages in and nothing had really happened—I hated it—so I had to put it away. I was disheartened and did not immediately put her newest titles on hold because I was afraid of being disappointed. Oates has been my favorite writer for about twenty years, and I didn’t want anything to threaten her status. But then I heard what Daddy Love, her newest, was about—familiar JCO territory—and I had to read it.


Daddy Love starts off with every parent’s nightmare, their child being abducted, but instead of being a slam, bang beginning, the novel starts incredibly slow with the abduction being told and retold three times by the mother with slight variations. I knew that Oates had a purpose for this—she’s an experimental writer—but I don’t think today’s editor would have the patience to let a first-time writer get away with this. Those three chapters would probably be labeled repetitive, and if the writer wanted to be published, he or she would have to cut these and beef up the more seamy material in the book.

Daddy Love represents the whole horrific experience of a child abduction. A parent who has a child ripped from his or her arms would most likely repeat that last memory with the child over and over again, trying to figure out how the event could have been prevented (if they allow themselves to remember it). These three repeating chapters and the cover of Daddy Love serve as fair warning to how dark the material of this novel is, and there’s plenty of time for the reader to get out of it.


Once the mother has exhausted herself, trying to figure out how she could have prevented the abduction of her five-year-old son, the novel jumps to Daddy Love, a charismatic part-time reverend who pedals his good looks and women’s attraction to him in order to get them to cater to him and his sons. Daddy Love carefully hunts for each of his victims, believing that God reveals the special boy to him and he is saving the child from an awful parent. The child must be old enough so he can take care of his needs, but he must be young enough so he’s attractive to Daddy Love and his mind can be molded. Daddy Love’s latest son Deuteronomy has become too old, and that’s why the reverend got rid of him and sought out Robbie, who Daddy Love renames Gideon after carefully breaking him through one of many tortures. The problem with Daddy Love is that the torture never ends.

Daddy Love turned into a freezer book for me. I got to a part of the novel where I knew what was going to happen, but I couldn’t face it for a week. This wasn’t cliché, it was just what inevitably had to occur based on how Oates portrayed Daddy Love and Gideon’s relationship.

Here’s where I had to stop for a while:

“In some of the watercolors, which were more brightly colored than the drawings, and less ominous, the boy was in a canoe-shaped vessel that floated above the earth. All about him, stars and moons in a nighttime sky.

Inside the canoe-like vessel with the boy was an animal resembling a dog. Sandy-colored, with erect ears and a long curved furry tail.

A friendly animal! This was a relief. This was in contrast to the sinister tone of the drawings.

…Gideon called her ‘Missy.’ Gideon loved loved loved Missy.

Missy was Gideon’s responsibility, utterly. Gideon fed her twice daily and kept her plastic food-dishes clean. He kept her water-dishes filled with fresh water. He brushed her coat, which was a warm beautiful sand-colored coat that tended to snarl, with a special dog-brush. Especially, Gideon was zealous about keeping her from barking at the wrong time.”


I think the most powerful part of the book is the ending, where what should be a happy resolution of a child being reunited with his parents isn’t. Robbie/Gideon has suffered irreparable damage at the hands of Daddy Love, and the return to his parents is rocky and filled with anxiety for son, mother, and father. A huge vacuum was left in Robbie’s parents’ lives after his abduction, but once he’s returned their days are filled with moving households, therapy, and questions: Who is Robbie now? What’s he thinking? What does he remember of his early life? and Will he ever be the same? And what Oates conveys is that these abducted, abused children are marked for life if they’re lucky enough to escape their captors.

Joyce Carol Oates and cat.
Joyce Carol Oates and cat.

Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You Is Pretty Forgettable

Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You is Joyce Carol Oates’s latest young adult offering, and I always feel like these novels are attempts by her to make sense of new technology. In Oates’s young adult novels, Internet searches, instant messaging, and texting take up great chunks of the book and are important plot points compared to her adult novels and short stories. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I often have to ask younger kids how to do something on the computer. They’ve grown up always used to one while I had to learn in my last few years of high school. I know Oates got a new iPhone a while ago and was enamored with the photo function. Lots of cat pictures followed, which is very teenage girl, and I can’t help thinking that maybe this novel coincides with her acquisition.

A recent cat portrait by Joyce Carol Oates.


In this novel, the story is told through two perspectives, Merissa Carmichael, a triple-A personality who’s been accepted early to Brown, and Nadia Stillinger, an insecure, curvy girl who’s been told she’s fat so many times that she now believes it (she’s five foot four and weighs 119 pounds at her heaviest). The unifying factor between these girls is that they were part of an inner circle that all received a last cryptic text from the boldest of them, Tink Traumer, before she committed suicide. The two different viewpoints didn’t really work for me. They felt uneven, but I guess the point of them is to show how Tink’s strength, ever after her death, helps these two girls when they are at their worst points and quite close to suicide to themselves.

Tink Traumer came to their school a few years earlier, a short, slight girl with an exotic past. Her mother is a television actress and very glamorous to Tink’s friends, and Tink herself was a child actress for several years on the same drama series as her mother. Now, Tink wants nothing to do with the world of acting and refuses to answer any questions about that time period. Tink’s not much to look at. She has red hair that she shaves off, is covered in freckles, and wears the same clothes day in and day out, but she makes up for that with her bravery. She’s a gifted artist and quite lippy, challenging teachers and adults when she feels it’s needed. Her friends are part of a popular clique, and all have their problems from the Perfect One, Merissa, whose home life is breaking apart and copes by cutting, to the weakest member, Nadia, who’s so eager for others to like her that she ends up sexually abused and the victim of cyberbullying.


Both Merissa and Nadia have strong fathers who only seem to care about their daughters as far as how much of a credit they are to them. Merissa’s father is proud of her prize-winning essay that’s posted on the Scientific American website, but he doesn’t have time to read it, and he’s thrilled that she’s won the coveted part of Elizabeth Bennet in the school theater production of Pride and Prejudice but doesn’t understand her reasons for quitting, or resigning her role, as Merissa puts it. Nadia’s father puts her in the best school possible—she’s nearly as recent as Tink to the high school—and her job is to not embarrass him. (She’s the baggage left over from his first marriage; he’s on his third now.) After a sexual experience happens that she doesn’t remember because she was drugged, Nadia is the subject of many rumors at school and is mercilessly harassed by the boys. She develops a crush on one of her teachers, Mr. Kessler, and after some bad decisions, her father is after him, accusing Mr. Kessler of something that he didn’t do. Nadia’s father doesn’t listen to his daughter; he just wants to punish what he perceives as a slight against him.

This isn’t a terrible book; I finished it. But I like Oates’s other young adult titles better. This just felt like a list of teen problems to me: suicide, check; cutting, check; and oh yeah, body image. I’m puzzled about what the novel’s big message is. The girl who is apparently the strongest in the clique commits suicide and then her spirit helps others who are having problems? Or is the message as simple as appearances are deceiving? I have no takeaway from the book. I reflected for a moment on cutting and body image, but the teens of today are coming up with their own solutions like the Butterfly Project and petitions to teen magazines to stop photoshopping models, making unrealistic images. I’m not sure that they would have much use for the girls presented in Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You.

Joyce Carol Oates and cat.

Getting Lisbeth Salander Right

I read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and was taken by his Lisbeth Salander character—the most interesting one in his books, though she’s secondary to Larsson’s main character, Mikael Blomkvist, who I don’t get at all. Lisbeth has been the victim of both physical and sexual violence, but rather than being undone by it, she uses this to temper herself as a weapon so she can get revenge.

What I like about Larsson’s books is that he didn’t use sexual violence to be titillating; he did seem to have some purpose in using it as a plot device. According to Larrson’s partner Eva Gabrielsson, who was with him for thirty-two years before he died, the reason he wrote so much about sexual violence was because he witnessed the gang rape of a girl when he was a teenager. He didn’t do anything to stop it at camp, and when he tried to apologize to the girl later, she freaked out, screaming, “Get away from me! You’re one of them!” He carried this guilt with him his entire life, and with his character Lisbeth Salander, he tried to exorcise his demons by giving her the power to be the angel of destruction, taking out those who do wrong against women.

The books were pretty clipping reads, but I found myself bored during the non-Lisbeth parts and exasperated by the manwhore character Blomkvist, a journalist who falls into bed with just about anybody, though he seems to have no exceptional qualities. He’s presented as a doughnut of a man, and maybe that’s where his secret powers lie. Lots of people like doughnuts. Otherwise, how can this be explained:

She stopped and smiled at him.

“Do you know what I’d like to do now?” she said.


“I’d like to take you home and undress you.”

“This could get a bit awkward.”

“I know. But I wasn’t planning on telling my boss.”

“We don’t know how this story’s going to turn out. We could end up on opposite sides of the barricades.”

“I’ll take my chances. Now, are you going to come quietly or do I have to handcuff you?”

—from The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

This is just one of the many female characters who falls for Blomkvist, and while Lisbeth does succumb to his charms, she shakes him off eventually. The series was made into movies in Sweden, starring Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth, and she’s a pretty kick-ass Lisbeth. There’s an intelligence in her eyes that I find just right for the genius-level Lisbeth Salander, who has an eidetic memory and can make abstract connections lickety-split. The only problem I had with the Swedish version is the complicated legal mess that Blomkvist falls into, which leads to his introduction to Lisbeth in the first place. It’s quite tedious stuff that doesn’t film in a very interesting manner.

David Fincher directed an American version of the first book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that came out late last year. In this version, Rooney Mara takes on the character Lisbeth Salander. Her Lisbeth is quite a bit different—heavier on piercings and with a more alien-like demeanor than anything else. It’s different than Noomi Rapace’s version, but I can buy it. What I didn’t like is the way Lisbeth’s filmed in this version. There’s lots of T&A shots of Lisbeth that don’t add to the story, and the only reason I can think of for them being in the film is to titillate (no pun intended). I can’t blame the actress for this; I don’t think she made these choices. Instead, it reminds me of the photographer Otto Öse in Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Blonde. He took the iconic photos of Marilyn Monroe on red velvet that may very well have launched her career and tells her this before the photo shoot: “I’m using crushed velvet for a candy-box effect. You’re a piece of candy, luscious enough to eat.”

I can’t say that I’m comfortable with Lisbeth Salander being portrayed this way.

Joyce Carol Oates’s Sourland

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.

My Sister, My Love

Joyce Carol Oates is my all-time favorite writer, and what I love about her is she writes a lot, which suits me because I read so much–I never run out of anything to read by my favorite author. I was salivating while waiting for my copy of her new book to come in at the library, My Sister, My Love. I knew it was a thinly veiled retelling of the JonBenet Ramsey case and looked forward to a domestic horror story, a form that Oates excels at.

It took me quite a while to warm up to this book. Once again Oates plays with one of her favorite themes–that of the double–but this time she applies it to the mother-child relationship, where children become an extension of their parents: I am you and you are me. This happens with an insecure, youngish, upwardly mobile housewife who first lavishes her attention, when she has it, on her firstborn Skyler, giving her mousy daughter Edna Louise the leftover crumbs. Skyler, however, fails to live up to the potential set for him by his parents Bix and Betsy Rampike, and it is Edna Louise who becomes the breakout star after putting on a borrowed pair of ice skates for a playdate. (The child becomes an ice-skating prodigy rather than a miniature beauty queen, as in the Ramsey case.) Betsy sees the Rampike family’s destiny in her young daughter, renames her Bliss, and starts training her hard, as if she were a racehorse and not a four-year-old. She becomes the terrorizing stage mother that has become a tabloid staple.

My Sister, My Love is told from the perspective of the older brother, Skyler Rampike, a nineteen-year-old who slips back in forth in time to recount what leads up to his sister’s murder and its aftermath. At times, the narrator’s voice strikes me as disingenuous. He’s awfully precocious for nineteen–or whatever age he is as he recounts his childhood–and since much of the satire must come out of his mouth, in the form of designer lifestyle drugs and illnesses and very obviously named SUVs (the Road Warrior XXL and the Reaper), it sounds a false note.

The narrator peppers the text with footnotes commenting on the story–to show his neurotic, obsessive frame-of-mind, I suppose–which reminded me too much of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (At least the notes were easily located on the page and not all found at the end of the book like with Infinite Jest.) I don’t like this meta- approach by Oates. I’ve come to depend on her for a good, meaty story and find this cleverness too much and overdone.