In forty-four stylistically uniform vignettes, Oates presents women and men, young and old, rich and poor, as though all were equally worthy of attention. These diverse characters--cousins identified only by their initials, the nameless woman hopelessly dependent on her lover, the man who sees beauty in stripteasers, the widow who foils a hold-up attempt--all have their own personas, but that does not guarantee their interest for the average reader. Although Oates does as well representing the feelings of men as those of women, the collection as a whole emphasizes the experience of women. Yet there is nothing overtly feminist in the content of these stories; rather, THE ASSIGNATION is apolitical, the sort of high art that presents intense moments of psychological interaction in which what is left unsaid matters unbearably.
THE ASSIGNATION is thus not exactly light-hearted reading. In many cases, the stories express ambiguity and ambivalence (as in “Anecdote,” in which an event is transformed even at the moment of its occurrence so that in the process of becoming an anecdote the event ceases to cause pain); sometimes things turn nasty (as in a story called “Bad Habits,” in which a couple’s inability to communicate leads to increasing violence within their marriage).
As narratives, the stories in this collection are of the minimalist persuasion, reminiscent of Nathalie Sarraute’s work in TROPISMS. Occasionally, though, Oates’ stories do soar beyond style and come to life for the mature and patient reader. There is also no denying the external diversity of the characters Oates assembles.