Thursday, January 24, 2013

Black Dahlia and White Rose: Stories, by Joyce Carol Oates

Alan Cheuse, NPR book reviewer (and author and professor), has dubbed Joyce Carol Oates's style as "every day gothic." This description is apt, especially for the self-consciously noir portion of Oates's large body of work. Black Dahlia and White Rose definitely falls into that category, as it is a collection of dark tales of people whose lives hold little that is hopeful or positive.

The book is organized into four sections. The first contains only the title story, in which Oates makes Marilyn Monroe the roommate of Elizabeth Short, the young woman dubbed the Black Dahlia after her sensational murder. The story takes the reader inside the two women's minds, as well as those of a sleazy photographer and a voyeuristic doctor.

All but one of the stories in the second section deal with parent-child relationships. I found these to be the most effective stories in the book--but effective in a way that makes them painful to read. In "I.D.," for example, a middle school girl who is having a variety of problems is pulled out of class and asked to identify a body as her mother.

What the stories in the third section have in common seems to be that the narrators become obsessed with observing someone or something else--the people in an apartment across a courtyard from a Rome hotel in one story, animals in the other. I found the two stories about animals (a sparrow and spotted hyenas) so bizarre as to be meaningless. The story about a married couple visiting "Roma" seems a more straightforward exploration of lost connections in a marriage of longstanding (which also is a theme in the hyena story).

The final section includes two stories about classes offered in prison settings. One features a man who repeatedly takes Introduction to Biology to understand "how is a person die." The second is told from the perspective of an older academic, who is teaching essay-writing with a younger colleague; while I have no idea if Oates has ever taught in prison, I found the character quite similar to the way in which Oates depicted herself in the memoir A Widow's Story, a similarity that quite honestly felt uncomfortable.

Although a couple of stories were engaging, I generally did not enjoy this collection. Furthermore, Oates's writing did not display the grace I've come to expect from her. In fact, I cannot stop myself from reproducing this truly horrid sentence: "She'd begun to perspire inside her clothes." Really? Where else would one perspire?

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