Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

More Oates-Style Keyhole Realism

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

More Oates-Style Keyhole Realism

Article excerpt

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. …

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