Heat and Other Stories
Since its beginnings with the gothic encounters of Edgar Allan Poe, the American short story has more often focused on borderline human experiences than on the center of everyday life. Short fiction has always zeroed in on disruptions of the everyday, when something happens that challenges the routine and thus upsets the comfortable value system derived from the ordinary. Whether the disruption is the result of an external force, such as the appearance of a mysterious stranger, or caused by an internal hallucination so vivid and powerful it seems external and real, in the twentieth century many of the best short-story writers who examine such disruptive and challenging experiences have been women.
Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O’Connor are three of the best such writers, well known for stories in which the ordinary is shattered by the intrusion of a mysterious and unfamiliar force. Joyce Carol Oates owes a powerful debt to these writers. One of Oates’s best-known stories—“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”—made even better known by the film adaptation Smooth Talk (1985) starring Laura Dern—is a classic example of the short-story convention of the ominous and disruptive stranger who is ambiguous because one is never quite sure whether he is a realistic external figure or a hallucinatory internal force. In this new collection of twenty-five stories by Oates, her first since 1986, she pushes the convention of focusing on the breakup of the everyday by a powerful and ambiguous force to violent extremes, for the stories are filled with assault, rape, mutilation, and murder.
In spite of the violence, however, there is a curious bloodless feeling about this collection. It does not derive only from the obvious fact that Oates’s intention is not to shock or to titillate; rather, it is that the stories seem to have been conceived in a literary test tube instead of having been created out of the gritty arenas of desire and physical reality.
Perhaps the most obvious statement one can make about Joyce Carol Oates, and it has been made many times, is that she is extraordinarily prolific. With twenty novels and sixteen collections of short stories to her credit, she has already exceeded the production of such giants of literary productivity as Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. In short, Oates writes a considerable amount and seemingly publishes everything she writes. It is a fact of her literary life that makes one suspicious that in spite of the serious surface of her work she is a one-woman industry. For all these misgivings, her novels win awards, and her stories frequently are included in award-winning short-story collections. There is no doubt that she knows the short-story form well and has studied it and practiced it more than most living writers.
As this collection amply shows, her work is often imitative and repetitive, and many of the stories seem to spring from a dispassionate artistic “what if” rather than from a passionate involvement in the lives of their characters. For example, in the story “Naked,” a middle-aged woman, while hiking in a suburban wildlife preserve, is attacked by a gang of minority children who beat her, rob her, and leave her naked and alone. Although this is a potentially powerful situation suggesting both violation and vulnerability, the event is not so much probed as it is merely set up as a sort of test case of white, middle-class, middle-aged placidity. “The Knife” also centers on a middle-class woman who is attacked, this time in her home by two thieves. At issue here is the now-predictable convention in which the woman blames herself for the attack. She wonders if it is her fault for leaving the door unlocked or for not using the knife the rapist puts in her hands. At the end, she even questions if what happened to her was rape at all.
In “The Boyfriend,” a thirty-six-year-old woman with a Ph.D. in economics finds herself not in love for the first time since she was a teenager and feels cut loose and free. She lets herself be victimized by a man who tries to rape her and who kicks her in the stomach—an attack that drives her to seek the protection of her last boyfriend. All three women in these stories think they are self-reliant and independent until male violence strikes; then they are not so sure. This sense of helplessness in the face of male brutality is a common theme in the collection.
“Leila Lee” is the story of a woman who marries a man with a twelve-year-old son who resents her and who hates his father for his abuse. The climax of Leila Lee’s attempts to make the boy accept her is that the boy kills his abusive father with an ax. Leila Lee comforts the boy and plans to help him dispose of the body, but ultimately she can only hold him in a kind of grotesque pietà posture, knowing that her true love is for this “son”...
(The entire section is 2004 words.)