“A small fever beginning to rage. But of course this was not an invasion of malevolent bacteria, but love.”

September 18, 2013 at 9:10 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

14928740  Uh oh…Fasten your seat belt and stiffen your spine: it’s yet another wild ride through the cracked and harrowing world of Joyce Carol Oates.

In the title novella in this collection, a young woman named Mariana has just become the fourth wife of Austin Mohr, a much older man of the world.

The new wife, the fourth wife, was thirty-two years younger than the first wife, who was two years older than the husband.

The gap of years was like a fissure in the earth, treacherous only if one tries to leap across it.

The numbers matter.

Mariana is duly installed in Austin’s beautiful house overlooking San Francisco Bay – and there is no mistaking; this is his house. She is appropriately awed. Pieces of Austin’s past are selectively divulged. There is no doubt that secrets persist. And he has a way of talking to his young bride that is a mixture of tenderness  and condescension.

As a comparative latecomer into his life, Mariana has trouble keeping all of Austin’s previous wives straight.

Often Mariana had to interrupt Austin to ask, with an apologetic laugh, “But wait–which wife are we talking about? When was this?” and Austin would say, “That’s not the point of the story, who happened to be with me then. It isn’t who or when that’s crucial, darling.”

She was rebuked in her superficiality! She was made to feel very young.

She was rebuked for thinking, with a tinge of inward pain–But if I love you so much, am I not crucial to you?

All the while I was reading “Evil Eye,” I felt the haunting presence of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. In that great suspense classic, a young second wife is made to feel wholly inadequate when compared to Rebecca de Winter, her stunning and dynamic predecessor.  Rebecca is already deceased by the time the young unworldly protagonist (whose name is never given) meets and falls in love with the widower Maxim.

There the similarity ends, though. For Austin Mohr’s first wife Ines is still very much alive….
The second novella, “So Near   Any Time   Always,” concerns Lizbeth Marsh, a shy and somewhat introverted high school student who is taken up by a somewhat older boy who more or less picks her up outside the library where she’d been doing her homework. Desmond Parrish seems nice, if a bit odd, and he’s new to the small town of Strykersville.  Located on the outskirts of Rochester, New York, it’s one of those places where everyone knows everyone else – and everyone else’s business. And so there is wonder at Lizbeth’s sudden acquisition of a boy friend – and wonder at just who Desmond Parrish is.
The fourth novella is called “The Flatbed.” As a young girl, Ceille was abused by a trusted family member.

Our secret. Just the little darling and me.

Ceille has now grown up; she knows those revolting stratagems and admonitions for what they really were. But the memories are preventing her from being able to fully love another man. What does she need ? Large doses of tender loving care, deep empathy, perhaps therapy – or, above all these, revenge?
I deliberately skipped over the third novella, “The Execution,” because I wanted to save it for last. Bart Hansen is a feckless college student and something of a waster. He’s awash in the tiresome bromides dished out by his earnest parents (who are nonetheless paying his bills). His father is stiff and judgmental; his mother, a bit softer, is sometimes on his side. Still, Bart, feeling a raging enmity toward both of them., decides he can’t take it any more. I don’t want to give away what happens next, except to say that it’s horrific.

Bart Hansen is a veritable case study of the narcissistic personality. His numerous woes are everyone’s fault but his own. His list of grievances is epic and endless, no one understands him, he is sorely put upon, etc. And as for that dreadful crime….who are they talking about anyway in that courtroom? Surely not him: he could never do such a thing!

Every portrayal in “The Execution” rings absolutely true: from the self-pitying Bart to Deekman, his slick lawyer; to his parents, with their fruitless exhortations – tedious arguments of insidious intent…. But it’s the way Oates does it, with her staccato sentences, sprinkled with dashes and italics and intermittent profanity. She grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. At least, she grabbed me. Others may have a different reaction. (I’m at a point now where I need to make my next selection for presentation to the Usual Suspects. If truth by told, I thought about this book. I really do think it would make for a great discussion. And members of this group are for the most part very broadminded. But I’m afraid that if presented them with this rather harrowing material, they might run me right off the premises!)

As you may have guessed, I found “The Execution” to be the most powerful of these four novellas. Joyce Carol Oates is so convincingly inside the mind of young Bart Hansen that there are times when I wanted to curl up into a ball and shout “Stop!” Yet I was the one who could not stop – reading, that is.

Critics and readers sometimes seem aggrieved and annoyed at Oates for being so prolific. (See “Heart of Darkness” by Caroline Fraser in the June 2004 issue of The New York Review of Books.)  I think that if stories like these were constantly forming and reforming in my brain, I’d want to get them out as soon as possible.


Joyce Carol Oates

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