In the fifth of eighteen stories in this collection by perhaps the most productive serious young writer in North America, “The Translation,” the protagonist is asked his opinion about modern art in the United States. The response is thatthe contemporary pathway is but a tendril, a feeler, an experimental gesture . . . because it is obsessed with death and the void and the annihilation of self it will necessarily die . . . it pronounces its own death sentence.
Much the same judgment could be rendered by a hostile reader of Joyce Carol Oates’s work as a whole. Certainly her tortured souls doomed to agonies of loneliness, frustration, and shattered illusions do nothing to deny the general opinion of her work as extraordinarily depressive in theme and content. But then, they are not intended to, if one reads the epigraph from Whitman: this is a collection for the hour that Whitman describes in “A Clear Midnight,” when the soul flies into the wordless void, “pondering the themes” it loves best, “Night, sleep, death, and the stars.”
Any group of eighteen stories, even those on similar themes, will of necessity be too diverse for easy generalization; the stories in Night-Side range in time and place from nineteenth century Massachusetts to contemporary Eastern Europe, though most are set in familiar Oates territory—Upstate New York and southern Ontario. The protagonists, like the settings, are also varied, including aging philosophers and psychologists, precocious lunatics, distraught physicians, artists and teachers, husbands and wives.
But this apparent diversity of setting and character is deceptive. For all their differences, the stories share several important characteristics. The first of these is that in none of them does anything “happen”; they are extraordinarily static in the sense of physical action, though in almost every case physical action seems imminent. For example, in one of the slighter stories, “The Giant Woman,” a boy and his older brother and sister break into the lonely farmhouse of an elderly recluse who is rumored to have killed her son. The children search her pathetic belongings for the cash hoard that all eccentrics are supposed to have squirreled away; while they do so the reader waits apprehensively for the formidable and dangerous old woman to return and do something dreadful to the children—or at least to frighten them. Instead, the younger boy, the protagonist, finds the money that none of them really expected to be there, and chooses not to say anything about it. The woman never does return, and the boy is left, atypically for Oates, with a warm and comfortable feeling about himself.
Similarly in other stories our expectation of some action, usually to be dreaded, is never realized. In the short sketch “The Murder” there is no murder, though one is wished for by the protagonist and might in fact occur after the story ends; in “The Sacrifice” the only action comes in a horrible dream, though the protagonist, an elderly psychologist, is apparently hit accidentally with a stickball at the end; and in “The Blessing” the promised violence inherent in any crowd, especially one which has gathered for religious instruction and is disappointed, never materializes.
The lack of overt action does not mean that nothing transpires in these stories—merely that the most important occurrences for Oates are, in this volume at least, internal, hidden, and not, by and large, communicable. That is the second major similarity among the stories in Night-Side: each one depicts a character who seems to have a quality of poise or balance or certitude which is shaken by an intense perception of what he comes to see as the truth. Examples abound, not only in the stories already cited but in “The Widows,” in which a mourning young widow learns that her husband had been involved in an affair with a dying colleague’s wife just before his own death; in the title story, when a staid and conventional college professor receives “messages” from a dead friend; and in the last story, “A Theory of Knowledge,” when an elderly professor of philosophy finds solace in aiding a small boy, thereby transcending the sterile Platonism to which he has devoted his life.
It is no coincidence that of these eighteen stories, fourteen deal with characters who might be said to live the life of the mind, as students, professors, writers, artists, or doctors. For it is the person who lives the life of the mind who will be most dramatically affected by certain “truths” that seem to recur, and which constitute the...
(The entire section is 1892 words.)