Thursday, June 2, 2011

Give Me Your Heart, by Joyce Carol Oates

I am currently trying to slog through Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (not my first attempt). In a chapter titled "Who Is a Novelist?"she talks about the difference between the author and the literary persona in a way that captured the struggle I had recently while reading Oates's book about being widowed (Oates herself seemed to find that persona burdensome). Smiley says: "As the author gets older and publishes more work, his or her literary persona grows larger, stronger, and more out of control. . . . The literary persona is a verbal construct but it speaks with a human voice, and to those who don't actually know the author, it seems to be the author." The Oates I encountered writing about herself was not the Oates I expected based on her literary persona.

I was more comfortable with this collection of short stories, subtitled Tales of Mystery and Suspense, which took me back to the literary Oates, though the creepier side of that persona. Still, imagine my surprise to come across the following in the very first story: ". . . you, Dr. K--, the man, are not the individual who appears in your books; the books are clever pretenses, artificial structures you've created to inhabit temporarily, as a crippled, deformed individual might inhabit a structure of surpassing beauty, gazing out its windows, taking pride in posing as its owner, but only temporarily." Oates does indeed seem to struggle with the conflict between self and literary persona.

Although Give Me Your Heart contains only ten stories, their conceptions of the human heart are so dark that they wear you down as you read. In "Split/Brain," a woman returns home unexpectedly from the rehab center where her husband is recovering; she notices her sister-in-law's car parked some distance from her driveway. Knowing that her ne'er-do-well nephew often drives the car, she enters the house calling his name. The resulting confrontation is predictable, but Oates gives the story another spin by returning to the thoughts in the woman's mind as she enters the house.

Several stories--"Strip Poker," "Bleeed," and "Nowhere"--involve girls (teenagers or younger) in dangerous situations with older males. In "The Spill," Lizabeta is the younger second wife of a man whose household includes various family members that no one else will take in. One of these relatives is John Henry, a mentally disabled nephew. Lizabeta fears that John Henry will harm one of her young children, telling herself over and over, "He would never hurt them. He would never." In the 1950s, however, Lizabeta cannot even dare to ask her husband to get rid of John Henry. So what can she do besides wait and watch? Perhaps the most disturbing story is "Vena Cava," which takes place entirely in the brain of a severely wounded soldier who has returned to North Dakota from the War on Terror. His wife is not the woman he wanted to marry, and he does not recognize his son as his own. Of course, he also believes that an actor is playing him. Oates describes his confused thoughts so masterfully that his story would be heart-breaking, even if it didn't end as badly as it does.

I recommend this collection, as long as you're not in a depressed state and don't read too many of the stories all at once!

Favorite passage:
. . . it was then that Jess's mother uttered the astonishing words Jess would never forget: "I wish I could believe you."

Not accusing so much as yearning, wistful. And her mouth strained, ugly. And it was the final moment of Jess's childhood, as it was, for Jess's mother, the final moment of a phase of her motherhood. Though neither could have said. Though neither would have possessed the words to speak of their loss.

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