The unusual format of "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again" by Joyce Carol Oates can prevent the reader from an immediate understanding of the text because it subverts expectations about how a story is told. Though a reader can gain understanding with a careful reading, changing the story to a more traditional narrative format might make it more accessible to all readers.
Oates's story is broken down into sections, as if it's the notes that a writer is making for a story rather than a story itself. She lists sections titled "Events, Characters, World Events, People and Circumstances Contributing to This Delinquency, Sioux Drive, Detroit, Characters, That Night, Characters We Are Forever Entwined With, and Events," in that order. Some of them simply say "Nothing" under the heading. There is no clear story that emerges from the sections right away.
There is also a great deal of uncertainty in the story. Everything is written like the narrator is trying to work out her thoughts before writing a story. The narrator mentions seeing a pawnshop but then asks what one is. She includes "Sugar donuts for breakfast. The toaster is very shiny and my face is distorted in it. Is that my face?" as one event in section XII. It's not clear why this moment was important enough to mention—but clearly, it is. It's also wedged between her going home, her weeping, and then another piece about her returning home. The events are either out of order or not explained enough to be logically ordered for a reader.
Most stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Oates challenges that by having the text move from one place to another and from one point in time to the next in a way that often seems random. There is no transition between the scenes the narrator lays out, and the reason for their inclusion in the narrative isn't always explained. For example, Oates moves from a day where the narrator is at the store with her mother to her leaving school, saying:
4. Weeks later, the girl at a bus stop. Two o'clock in the afternoon, a Tuesday; obviously, she has walked out of school.
5. The girl stepping down from a bus. Afternoon, weather changing to colder. Detroit. Pavement and closed-up stores; grillwork over the windows of a pawnshop. What is a pawnshop exactly?
With no timeline established or series of events clarified, these seem disconnected to the reader—they don't establish anything about the character or the story when they're first presented.
If the narrator told the story from beginning to end, introducing characters as they become important to the narrative, and moving from one time and place to the next in a logical order, the story would be easier to read and understand. It could start with a description of her life, move to her desire to steal, the act itself, her time in corrections, and her return home.
However, Oates likely chose to write it the way she did to subvert traditional ideas about narrative, plot, and story. As the eNotes Analysis says, Oates "juxtaposes a series of emotionally charged vignettes, impressions reminiscent of picture slides" that are read through the mind of the narrator herself. Doing so creates a different kind of story that leaves a different impression on a reader.