Lovely, Dark, Deep, by Joyce Carol Oates
By Lynda Schor
I am glad to be immersed in another book by Oates, especially her latest collection of short fiction, Lovely, Dark, Deep which was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize. These stories are captivating, compassionate, and haunting—dark and funny at the same time.
Lovely, Dark, Deep
Nov 12, 5pm
The five stories which have been chosen for the San Miguel Big Read are “Sex With Camel,” “Mastiff,” “The Hunter,” “The Disappearing,” and “The Jesters.” All of these five stories are linked by loss, yet they didn’t leave me with a sense of sadness, but rather, like the best art, I was left with wonder at their dark honesty and their myriad implications. I will review three of these stories.
In “Mastiff,” characters called only “the woman,” and “the man,” go hiking on a difficult trail in Wild Cat Canyon, where they see a man with a huge scary mastiff on a leash. The woman, terrified by the dog, thinks, “This isn’t a dog. It’s a man on his hands and knees,” while the man, sensing the woman’s fear, praises the dog’s beauty. Neither the man nor the woman seems to like each other much, and though they’ve had sex, they’ve never slept together all night. The woman is annoyed at the man’s distance and how he is more focused on taking photos than talking or touching. The man is annoyed that she is not wearing proper hiking boots and has forgotten to bring a sweater and some water.
On the trail, the woman speculates about her loneliness and her lack of ability to have an intimate relationship. “She could have wept. She would soon be forty-two years old. Yet it happened. In the new man’s company the woman felt a rare hopefulness.”
On the way back down the trail, the woman sees the mastiff, pulling its owner along. The dog breaks away and attacks the woman, snarling, biting, and nearly knocking her over. The man automatically intervenes, and the dog viciously attacks the man. Finally the dog’s owner is able to pull him away and promises to get help, leaving the collapsed and lacerated man lying in the woman’s arms. The woman helps the man to the Ranger’s Station, and he is taken to the ER at a hospital nearby. When the woman arrives at the hospital, she finds out that on the way the man has had a dangerous seizure. This catastrophe has immediately escalated their intimacy, and at the hospital the woman says she’s his fiancé. In gratitude for his intervention with the dog, she stays with the man in the hospital, takes charge of his medications, looks in his wallet to find out more about him, and promises to pick him up whenever he’s able to leave. She’s slipped into the role of loyal wife, just as the man had slipped into the role of protector. This sliding into roles seems to be both inevitable and highly dangerous in Oates’s fiction.
In “The Jesters,” a comfortably off retired couple becomes fascinated by, jealous of, eventually annoyed by, and then horrified by the lives of their mysterious neighbors, whose house they can’t see, but which is apparently identical to their own house in the same gated community. The more they listen for signs of their neighbors’ life, (sex, parties, babies, children), the more they realize their marriage has become sterile, their lives empty. “In a marriage, the most intense conversations are with oneself,” says the wife. When the couple finally goes to look for the house the sounds have been coming from—well, I’ll just say that the results are surrealistic and spooky—and completely satisfying.
In “The Hunter,” an accomplished female poet is invited by the president of a college to be poet-in-residence for two weeks, a prestigious gig, but one in which she’s still required to do a lot of teaching. The president, Rob Flint, confident, self-important, is a hunter, too. He seems to think that the poet’s appointment as the Caldwalder Poet In Residence for two weeks includes her being available to him. The poet becomes Rob Flint’s lover though she doesn’t seem to like him or their sex. Still, she fantasizes that he will divorce his wife for her. “The Hunter” is a complex story that defies a short summary.
After I’d read all five stories for “The Big Read,” I wanted to read all the others. I have a feeling you will too.
It’s suggested that you may want to buy the book rather than download it as, opposed to a novel with a set group of characters that you follow and one plot, there are 13 stories with many characters and “stories” to keep track of. Books are for sale at the tienda at the library, at the two one-time book group sign up opportunities on November12 and January 14 at the Literary Sala at the Aldea Hotel at 5pm, and at the two programs on Joyce Carol Oates on January 25 and February 1 at the Teatro Santa Ana at 5pm. The cost of the book is 250 pesos.