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The Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates, book review

 

Joyce Carol Oates is the Stakhanov of contemporary American letters. Where other writers might think it achievable to publish a novel every two, three, or even five years, Oates has averaged two a year since the 1970s. The dustjacket of this collection of novellas cannot even be bothered with a list of highlights, citing the 76-year-old, who is also a professor at Princeton, as "the author of over 70 works".

Some may have just finished Carthage, a satisfyingly complex suspense thriller triggered by a young woman's disappearance in the Adirondacks, which came out in January to admiring reviews. Now, with another publisher, Oates is again twisting readers' expectations, with this slim collection of "four novellas of love gone wrong". Fans of her earlier forays into macabre storytelling, such as 2011's collection, Give Me Your Heart, will revel in the mastery with which Oates makes the gothic contemporary.

As in so much of Oates's work, these stories abound in female victims, sexual violence and predatory males. The first novella, Evil Eye, riffs on the Bluebeard story, but also with its San Francisco Bay setting, recalling Hitchcock's Vertigo. Mariana, the young fourth wife of the respected director of an art institute, lives like a guest in his showcase home perched high on a Berkeley clifftop. One evening his vivacious first wife, Ines, visits and what Mariana observes – or is told that evening – embeds deep distrust in their marriage.

A trusting young woman is also the protagonist of the first-person narrated 1970s-set, So Near Any Time Always, which recounts how a naïve adolescent girl's pride in being singled out by a clever WASPish young man turns sour when his interest becomes predatory.

The third novella, The Execution, allows us into the disturbed mind of just such a spoilt, unbalanced young man. Bart Hansen, high on Ritalin, sets off to murder his parents after they have refused to pay his frat-house debts. But in this clever tale of the unexpected, his mother's love transforms Bart's circumstances, tightening not severing their bond.

Finally in The Flatbed, the outwardly accomplished Ceille is persuaded to reveal painful childhood secrets to a lover. But does the earlier crime justify their subsequent actions, or the thrill they derive from their violence?

There's nowt so queer as rich American folk, might be Oates's thesis. All these readable, but troubling, tales follow gilded, but encaged lives, over which none of her young protagonists are in full control. Oates's coolly precise style suits these dark, disturbing detours. "A shredded-looking sky like old Kleenex" is how she describes the nighttime clouds as Bart heads home to take an axe to his father. Oates unnerves to the last.

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