Last Days is a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, all of which have been previously published between 1981 and 1984. Characteristic products of her frenzied and prolific imagination, the stories are uneven in quality, though at least two of them—“Last Days” and “My Warszawa: 1980”—are first-rate.
The collection is divided into two sections: “Last Days” and “Our Wall.” The first explores familiar terrain—the fictive world that Oates excels in representing—a melodramatic world which is disturbingly analogous to the so-called real one mirrored in the daily papers, the television news, the soap operas, the talk shows, and the popular magazines. This is a world of senseless violence, fanatic religiosity, neurotic anxiety, spiritual despair, truncated love, and pervasive guilt. Unsurprisingly, a number of Oates’s characters undergo mental breakdowns, sometimes resorting to murder or suicide as a way of coping with their desperation. In each of the stories in the first section, at least one of the characters is on the way to, on the way back from, or currently incarcerated in a mental institution.
“The Witness” is written from the first-person point of view of an incipiently psychotic young girl who may or may not have witnessed a brutal murder. Since the reader is confined to her unreliable narration, fantasy and fact blur and merge. It would seem that insanity runs in the family, for the girl’s father is a former mental patient who now devotes his time exclusively to smoking Camels, drinking whiskey, and waxing mystical about the ubiquity of God and His unconditional love. God’s love may be unconditional and His presence ubiquitous, but redemption is no certainty. In this story, only suffering and despair enjoy that status.
If, as the female narrator in “The Man Whom Women Adored” maintains, artists do not explain but survive and suggest pathways, then the only redemptive pathway in this first section is offered by “Funland.” (In “Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.”, a former mental patient who lost custody of her child born out of wedlock is abandoned by her academic husband and left with his three daughters; in “Last Days,” the protagonist assassinates his rabbi in the midst of a religious service and then takes his own life; there are no pathways out of the abyss in these stories.)
In “Funland,” a father and his young daughter embark on what proves to be an abortive pilgrimage to visit her mother, who resides in a mental institution. They end up instead in a dilapidated amusement park and experience a kind of communion, the father rediscovering the power to bless. Nevertheless, Mel’s Funland offers minimalist redemption at best, providing but a momentary stay against confusion, a temporary respite from despair.
The stories in the first section are bleak and pessimistic. Although they are deftly constructed and packed full of realistic detail, they are in general somewhat predictable. An exception is the title story, “Last Days,” which, though equally bleak and pessimistic, is an excellent piece of fiction.
The principal character of this story, Saul Morgenstern, agonizes over the fact that he was born too late, using the recurrent image of suffocation. As he puts it:The real thing is, God’s curse on me is, I was born too late. All the suffering is over—all the memoirs have been written. Every breath of Saul’s has been breathed by someone else.
That he is Jewish is symbolically appropriate, for it means that he grievously feels the pain and anguish of the slaughter bench of recent history and that he has inherited the guilt that accompanies survival. For Saul, the crushing weight of tradition—with its myriad works of genius, acts of heroism, and moments of suffering—produces an overriding sense of belatedness, an anxiety of influence: “The unflushed toilet in the hall. Waste, foul and sickening and not his own. His fear is of being unoriginal, accused of plagiarism, exposed, ridiculed, cast aside as ordinary.”
A figure of the alienated artist, Saul gives utterance to the postmodernist dilemma, for the burdensome omnipresence of the past tends not only to undercut the chances of “making it new” but also to create that special postmodernist alienation called “literary autonomy,” the last refuge of individual subjectivity from the historical forces that threaten to annihilate it. As Harold Bloom suggests in The Anxiety of Influence (1973), strong writers make literary history by misreading and misinterpreting one another so as to clear imaginative space for themselves. Saul is no person of capable imagination; he cannot expropriate the past for himself. He trades his creative freedom for the deadly determinism of murder and suicide, becoming in the process an integer of statistical reality, an item in a news report, an image on a television, and, ironically, an object about which others write. He chooses the fixity of death over the fluidity of freedom: “Better to die, Saul instructs Saul, than to crawl like a dog into someone else’s sheets.” He ultimately decides that he has been born too late, that all the words have been used, and that all the oxygen has been breathed; the past asphyxiates him.
The reference in the text to Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous “Portrait of the Anti-Semite” is apt and telling; like the anti-Semite, Saul “is a man who is afraidof himself, of his conscience, of his freedom, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitude, of change, of society and the world.” His decision to...
(The entire section is 2306 words.)