Head of Zeus, £16.99. Order at £14.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop
The Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates, book review
Thursday 03 July 2014
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.
After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violencefilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
- 2 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 3 Kajieme Powell: Missouri police release video footage of second man killed by officers
- 4 Paul Scholes: Manchester United need five experienced players who can turn round a desperate situation
- 5 James Foley 'beheading': Met police warn public watching murder video could be criminal offence
Laughs go global as Eddie Izzard and Dylan Moran bring international comedians to the Edinburgh Fringe
The Top Ten: Horrible buildings
JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story on Pottermore: Introducing 'Singing Sorceress' Celestina Warbuck
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Celebrity Big Brother 2014 line-up: Meet the contestants from Lauren Goodger to Kellie Maloney and Audley Harrison
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
Scottish Independence Referendum: Salmond described as 'arrogant, ambitious and dishonest' by Scottish women