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'Faithless: Tales Of Transgression' by Joyce Carol Oates

Wild Oates: Short stories follow characters on the moral fringe

Sunday, May 06, 2001

By Sarah Billingsley, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


Faithless: Tales Of Transgression

By Joyce Carol Oates

HarperCollins/The Ecco Press


In this new collection of short fiction, Joyce Carol Oates portrays an America in the thrall of infidelity and revenge. As the title implies, these are stories of love gone sour and of obsessed characters who test ethical, sexual and social boundaries.

Oates -- for better or worse one of the most prolific writers of our time -- assembles a familiar cast of emotionally wounded characters from the wrong side of the tracks. Throughout her career, in her novels, short stories, plays and poetry, Oates has specialized in taking the role of interlocutor with those who live on the moral fringe.

She writes of their disappointments, fixations, urges, betrayals and eccentricities. She writes of the strange and inexplicable situations that arise in their hostile worlds. Her characters read as disconcertingly single-minded, detached and violent, as though they once acted with passion but can’t muster it any longer.

The characters -- however different geographically and socio-economically -- inhabiting the gritty world of Oates’ creation are never people who could be described as “normal.” In each of the 21 stories, their potential to do terrible things, true evil, is weighed, explored and sometimes accepted.

Published on the heels of “Blonde,” Oates’ epic novel of Marilyn Monroe, her new book gives voice to many deprived female characters who have been victimized, rudely jilted, ignored or taught to live in silence.

Sometimes these women rebel, and sometimes they accept the unhappiness of their world. In “Ugly,” the ungainly waitress protagonist revels in mediocrity and relishes the idea of becoming more and more ugly, inside and out. She reasons:

“One advantage of ugly: you don’t require anyone to see you the way a good-looking person does, to be real. The better looking you are, the more dependent upon being seen and admired. The uglier, the more independent.”

Independence, in her case, is really loneliness, and the attentions she receives from a strange man, drawn to her unattractiveness, shame her into regrettable acts. “Ugly” is a chilling reminder of what unrest and rancor may churn beneath a deceptively smooth surface, a theme Oates returns to again and again throughout the book.

In the title story, two sisters are left with their reticent father and the inexplicable absence of their vanished mother, a mystery that haunts them into middle age. They cope with the trauma of her abandonment, only to discover that things are not always what they seem.

Oates also explores a theme of women experiencing the physical decline of age and acting out in an audaciously sexual manner. In some of the stories, a surprising, disconcerting relationship develops between a successful, much older woman and a troubled young man, as in “Questions,” in which a professor enters into a sexual affair with her suicidal 20-year-old student. In “Murder-Two,” a high-powered lawyer is attracted to her young client, a boy she knows is guilty of murdering his mother.

“Gunlove” probes a woman’s fetish for firearms through a discussion of her sexual past; she remembers every man she’s felt lust for by the type of gun he owned and her fascination with it. “Gunlove” is written in sexy, episodic prose. Oates has used this disconnected style in older works, where the passage of time between encounters is where the prose breaks, like diary entries, before moving on to the next thing. What Oates has deliberately omitted is as interesting to imagine as what’s there.

The first story of the book, “Au Sable,” is the book’s most creepy, surprising and succinct. A jaded husband takes a call from his in-laws at their remote summer cabin, where they’ve retired to complete a suicide pact. The call, which he must handle in his wife’s absence, throws his own marriage into high relief. “Au Sable” is one of the many stories in “Faithless” in which Oates makes no judgment on the strange actions of her characters.

The less effective stories of “Faithless” are longer, overly explanatory, overwritten. Most involve protagonists contemplating violence against someone who has “wronged” them.

In “The Vigil” a man stalks his ex-wife in his ex-house, parking at the end of the driveway with his gun across his lap, night after night, observing her lover coming and going. Oates leaves the ending of the story wide open, and we the readers are left to our own devices to surmise what the character has actually done, whether he has completed his act of violence or not.

“The Vigil” is the most effective of these “stalker” stories at the end of “Faithless.” In them, an action is considered and considered some more. A person who has been jilted is the stalker. They wait; they watch. Oates fails to torque this situation into something different. Because of this repetition and the tedious pacing of these stories, “Faithless” -- which builds early with fascinating tales -- concludes on a stale note.

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