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.


  1. Great post. I understand now why it's a prized possession.

    For me, it's Ursula K Le Guin. It took me many years to read something else other than A Wizard of Earthsea, and while I have enjoyed her other books, that's still the one that does it for me.

  2. I have the same problem with Oates, Austen, and Byatt. I have read more than one Oates, but in the grand scheme of things, it equals out since she's written like a million books. Serious, don't you figure she's written about a million pages? If you added it all up together? She's scary prolific.

    I recommend The Falls by her though, it is very good. I think First Love is probably a lot like Beasts. And I really enjoyed Black Water, although it is probably my least favorite of the three I've read by her.

  3. I'm glad you were so impacted by this one--I have it but have not yet read it. I am a big fan of Oates though--I especially love Blonde and My Siter, My Love.

  4. This sounds like such an intense read. You definitely have me intrigued.

  5. I think I've only read We Were the Mulvaneys. That was pre-blogging, so I'm pretty sure I liked it. But this one sounds awfully dark.

  6. I have the same issue with Oates. I remember really liking We Were the Mulvaneys and Rape: A Love Story, but I didn't like The Gravedigger's Daughter (though I think it might have been my mood at the time, I dunno). But I figure with the number of books she's written, I'm not going to like them all. I can appreciating the writing, though.


  7. Olduvai, thanks! And you know, I've never read any of Le Guin's stuff. I fear I'm terribly out of the loop.

    Heather, good point. She has written so much, it's just unbelievable. I knew it was a lot, but until I saw the whole picture at Olduvai's post, I had no idea just how much. Will definitely try The Falls.

    Lola, I hope you love it as much as I did. I hear endless good things about Blonde.

    Thanks, Trisha! I highly recommend it. Looking forward to your thoughts if you decide to read it.

    Jill, it is awfully dark. It's good that it's short or it would be far too overwhelming.

    Anna, The Gravedigger's Daughter is one I really want to try, but it's more because I like the title and less because I know anything about it. I don't know anyyyything about it. lol

  8. I want to know her secret for being able to write so many books!

    Glad to hear you really liked this one. I read this one quite a while back and I thought it was great. I've only read a couple of her books but she hasn't disappointed me. She wrote another book of short stories, I actually only got to read the first one I believe, and boy was it good. Quite chilling. I think the book is titled "Haunted".

  9. I've never really had a feel for Joyce Carol Oates. I'm mildly intimidated by her, and I don't really know what kind of books she writes. If you do read more I'll be curious to see your reviews.

  10. Iliana, I'll have to check out that collection of short stories. I read a couple from the Collector of Hearts collection and one from a horror anthology. Great stuff!

    Jenny, I would characterize her books as the new gothic or new grotesque. They're very atmospheric and dark and moody.


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