Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Stuck ("High Crime Area" by Joyce Carol Oates)

A book of short stories is very much like a box of assorted chocolates:  you approach with a singular expectation that is inherently impossible to satisfy. You won't be satisifed by every single piece of chocolate, and not every individual story will capture your interest or attention. Quite often, the box is populated by strange off-flavors, just as the pages are clouded by the shadows of what could have been:  stories that are too experimental, too short, too "tell," stories that are what other authors would consider throwaway pieces, not good enough, not fit for publication. There is no avoiding these two inevitabilities, and should the overall composition of each lean towards the unpalatable, even slightly, it ruins the entire experience. In fact, in the last 25 years, there have been a half-dozen writers at most who could sustain an entire collection--William Gay, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sherman Alexie, Alice Munro, George Saunders, and Judy Budnitz being a few. Each put forward collections that were thorough, consistent, entertaining, engaging, and worthy of the hours--even days--that they required, that they insisted. At the end, our time had not been wasted, and even the most frivolous of literary apples--for there are always stunted saplings among the trees--hadn't managed to spoil the batch.

Over the last quarter-century alone, Joyce Carol Oates has published almost 20 collections of short fiction. The very definition of prolific--she also writes novels, nonfiction, criticism, poetry, drama, children's and young adult literature, and erotica at an exhausting pace--Oates is also one of the most anthologized writers working today, and for good reason:  she is as much a writer as she is an anthropologist of a romanticized and fictional America, and her forte--the prize of her studies, as it were--is the effect of chaos when introduced into an otherwise untroubled world. Take a contented suburban family, slide something unexpected beneath their door--or over their phone, or inside a darkened bedroom--and watch as they struggle to control what is uncontrollable, all the while revealing every slick insecurity and prejudice they may been keeping subdued for years. Her stories are studies in patience, each page a speck of dirt being wiped away from the windows, until at last we're an audience on the front lawn, assembled for the final, climactic act...and all of it illuminated by 32-watt footlights and choreographed along fresh vacuum-lines in the carpeting.

The problem is that, as with most writers, her best work was published earlier in her career--in this case, more than forty years ago: "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" from 1966, "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again" from 1969, and "The Lady With the Pet Dog" from 1972. Each of these is frequently reprinted and, in their day, were momentous works; today, featured alongside works by her well-inspired successors, Oates' fiction seems somewhat dated, though her skill at understanding the psyche of her characters remains unsurpassed. But that leaves us with hundreds of other stories that have been printed in the years since--a wide-ranging assortment that is destined to be forgotten ten years after Oates has passed away, rendering 99% of her literary legacy all but irrelevant. Even when compared to the surviving, in-print works of the other writers of her generation--Raymond Carver, Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo--the ratio seems completely lopsided. This might seem unavoidable given her output, but that is less of a reason and more of an excuse. In truth, Oates lackluster writing is the result of a writer who seems to have spent the last three decades refusing to compromise on any aspect of her craft, even after the world around her has moved on.

High Crime Area, her most recent collection, is a prime example of this problem. Comprised of eight separate works, each based around the theme of "darkness and dread," the heart of the book is "The Rescuer," a 100-page novella about a graduate student who is emotionally blackmailed by her distant parents into caring for a drug-abusing, HIV-infected brother living an hour away. Both siblings are academically-minded, their interests lying in ancient and indecipherable texts--a metaphor for their shared inability to translate and understand any aspect of their own lives, much less the old papers in front of them--but they are both weak and thoughtless, and in very little time the narrator has begun to compromise her ethics and common sense. By the end of the story she is no better than her brother, a internal devolution personified by the dragging of a dead body across town. The suggestion is clear:  they are both sick, they are both polluted, and now they are trapped in the ghettoized city in which they share "our apartment."

There are qualities to "The Rescuer" that should make it better than what it is. When Oates writes of the protagonist's studies, her relationship with her professor, even the books she reads, she does so with an assuredness that leaks into the vocabulary and renders each passage thick and unreadable. Similarly, when she introduces the men and women with whom her brother is entangled, their dialogue is annotated with apostrophes and heavy with slang, also to the point of unreadability--an indication of their lack of education and refinement, even morals. (The professor, revealed only in flashbacks, speaks in clear, succinct sentences--the language of an educated man, it is suggested.) And yet these two dichotomous parts of the narrator's life are one in the same:  the professor's role is that of a predator, and he looks to the narrator for validation and control, using his influence over her to get his way; just as the character of Leander, a pitbull-wielding drug-dealer, is a predator, lusting openly after her--even raping her--and inviting in other women to steal her money under the guise of friendship. The differences here are ones of color--the professor is white, Leander is not--and of perception, with the narrator believing herself safe in a world where others look and act just like her, despite the fact that predatorial relationships do not care about race, language, or location. This unrealized fact renders her a fool and dooms her to life beside her brother--a sinner who cannot escape the Inferno.

Had "The Rescuer" been written by the Oates of the 1960s and 70s, it would be an admirable, even groundbreaking look at how fear and prejudice affect the way we perceive others and plot our lives, and written in an era of civil unrest on top of that. Now, with its characters drawn from some otherworldly source and Oates half-committed to the whole idea, her company of men and women come off as stereotypes. The same happens in many of the other stories contained herein--in "Lorelei," about a prostitute who seems to believe in destiny, in "The Home at Craigmillnar," about an orderly who seeks vengeance for his family, in "High," about an old widow who uses drugs to dull the shame and irrelevance of old age--and by the time we finish the final story, we've seen Oates trudge out one tired literary trope after another, introducing nothing new. And it's that final story, the titular story, that her self-condemnation is fulfilled. Told from the point of view of a college professor--like Oates--whose heavy criticism has offended almost every one of her adult-education students, the story follows her on a particular night, when she is followed by a young black man while walking to her car. She fears for her safety and, at the same time, worries that this fear brands her as a racist. Eventually, the tension is relieved when she discovers he's an old student, though the closing lines leave his intentions unclear; instead, we see the story for what it is--the paranoia and fear of a white woman when encountering an unknown and refusing to change, even if it means living a life that is less.

Instead of engaging in controversial ideas with a modern attitude and abandoning these old cliches, Oates is happy to drive the same tired highways over and over again, unwilling to seek out an exit to carry her far away from a place no longer able to support her. She has compromised her own skills, holding steadfast to what is comfortable and familiar--and safe--while ignoring the wilderness in the distance, someplace far from the false promises of academia and the false hopes of rundown neighborhoods. In this way she becomes just like her characters:  an intelligent, kind figure in need of being rescued.