Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reflection: Beasts, by Joyce Carol Oates

In 2003 I read Joyce Carol Oates for the first time. Staring at her body of available work in any bookstore is completely overwhelming since she's one of the most prolific authors in the world. As I recall, I picked Beasts because it was slim--just 130 pages--and it seemed a safe choice since I'd never read any of her stuff before. I knew her name because she was featured on Oprah for We Were the Mulvaneys, but that was the extent of my knowledge about her or her work.

I was supremely unhappy at the time. Caught in a rocky, unfulfilling relationship and living some 1,300 miles from my family; mine was a dark mindset. Perfectly fitting for Oates's dark novella.

Otto Penzler, a well-known editor of mystery fiction and owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City created "Penzler's Picks" for, and Beasts was one of his picks. It's also the first of his own picks he's reviewed for the site. He writes:

Beasts is a little jewel of a book, only 138 pages. Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea is a perfect gem, and so are Steinbeck's The Red Pony, and James Ellroy's Dick Contino's Blues, and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw; the short novel is capable of being one of an author's masterpieces. Short novels, or novellas, allow for the author to develop characters more fully than is possible in a short story, yet constrict them enough to maintain a single mood, or tone, throughout the entire book, which might easily become oppressive in a longer work.

Set in an apparently idyllic New England college town, Beasts is the story of Gillian Brauer, a student who falls in love with her professor, his Bohemian lifestyle, and anti-establishment attitudes, and what happens when she falls under his spell.

Knowing that other girls preceded her does not deter Gillian from becoming part of the household of Professor Harrow and his larger-than-life wife, Dorcas, the outrageous sculptress of shocking wooden totems. Drawn into their life, Gillian soon becomes a helpless pawn, a victim of her own passions and those of her mentors. Or does she? Sometimes even the most seemingly powerless prey can surprise a predator.

I remember reading the book in a day. I had other things to do, but I couldn't seem to drag myself away from the little novella for more than a little while. I'd spent the afternoon and part of the evening doing something outside: planting flowers or mulching a flower bed or something equally sweaty and exhausting. I came into the house, flopped down on the couch, unwashed and drained of energy, and I opened Beasts in hopes of finishing it.

The story was not happy. I felt myself so thoroughly drawn into Gillian's mind and angst that I literally felt anxious throughout most of the book, and by the end the anxiety had turned to sickness. My stomach hurt as I read through her predicament. Her professor and his wife were users and abusers. Content to take female students as their little toys and then enjoy them, confuse their minds, keep them guessing, and break their hearts. It was a crushing feeling to read the book. The weight of Oates's world was immense.

When I flipped to the last page and closed the book, while I still felt a lingering ache in my stomach, I was also immeasurably impressed. I can't remember an author, before or after, who could hold me with such intensity. Who could convince me, without a doubt, that I was a part of her narrative. Beasts is dark and unpleasant and confusing and entrances the reader, and it's masterful writing. More than any of the darkness, I took away from the novella a sense of Joyce Carol Oates's power and ability as a writer.

Sadly, I've only dabbled in Oates's fiction since 2003. I've read several short stories, and I even started The Tattooed Girl, but as with some other authors who've bowled me over and quickly taken a place among my favorites, I'm almost scared to sample more of their wares. How could anything live up to Beasts and that gut-check feeling of tumbling head first into an author's world? Silly or not, I suppose I'm scared of not finding it again. Or maybe I'm concerned that I began with the best and it's all downhill from here.

Whether I find myself equally impressed with Oates in the future, I can't say. But I will always remember the feeling of reading Beasts for the first time. I'm reminded every time I re-read it--a rare honor in my reading life. And I have a token to show for my affection. A very good friend of mine from graduate school gifted me a signed copy of Beasts after he heard Oates speak at Purdue University. It's one of those bookish tokens I'll hold onto the whole of my life. It's a great memory topped off by Oates's pen.
Thanks to Olduvai Reads for inspiring me to write this post today. I waxed nostalgic when I saw the "Reading Joyce Carol Oates" post and her immense body of work.

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