Joyce Carol Oates’s multitudinous collections are repeatedly subtitled “tales of suspense” or “stories of mystery”. You tend to know what you’re getting with an Oatesian short – a disquieting snapshot of American life on the verge of individual or ideological collapse – and these nine additions to her oeuvre don’t disappoint.
The first, Detour, is a classic of its type. A diversion forces a woman down a forest road, she wrecks her car and, looking for help, ends up a befuddled prisoner in an isolated house. The set-up is cliched to the point of being arch, but Oates brilliantly toys with our understanding of a confused mental state.
At least there’s some relief at the end of that horror. In Wanting, the rising panic the reader and protagonist feel as she agrees to go to a stranger’s macabre studio is gripping. There’s a similar exploration of the excitement inherent in a reckless act in Intimacy, where a creative writing professor is thrilled and intimidated by a supposed war veteran’s threatening demeanour. The reckoning here is left entirely to our imagination – another typically superb Oates trope.
Throughout, she stylishly conveys the sweep of a life; the consequences of experiences, however tiny. The smaller experiments with form are interesting too. In Parole Hearing, California Institution for Women, Chino, CA, she inhabits a fictional disciple of Charles Manson, every sentence beginning “Because”. Miss Golden Dreams 1949, meanwhile, is mischievously written from the perspective of a cloned Marilyn Monroe doll.
The collection ends with the title story, in which a woman who has fought off unbearable abuse is pregnant and happy. When her sliding doors moment arrives, a hopeful or heartbreaking future is left open to interpretation. It’s Oates’s work in microcosm; nuanced rather than neat.