Oates’s newest novella is a tale of academe similar to (though darker than) such earlier books as The Hungry Ghosts (1974) and American Appetites (1989).
The story begins and ends in Paris, in the Louvre, where protagonist Gillian Brauer observes a garishly expressionistic “totem” that triggers buried memories of her college years. Oates thereafter moves backward and forward in time and among a catastrophic 1975 house fire in a college community in Massachusetts’s Berkshire Mountains, the events leading up to it, and Gillian’s conflicted feelings about the couple who “adopted” her, and her own inchoate sensibility and sexuality. At Catamount College for Women, in the wake of the permissive, volatile late 1960s, Gillian falls under the spell of her literature professor Andre Harrow, a charismatic (if vaguely goatish) mentor who chants D.H. Lawrence’s “voluptuous” verses to his poetry-writing seminar students, and teasingly addresses withdrawn Gillian as “Philomela” (a telling allusion to Ovid’s Metamorphoses). Meanwhile, a series of small fires set by an uncaught arsonist terrifies Catamount’s students (two of whom happen to be named Sibyl and Cassandra)—as Gillian finds herself attracted as well to Harrow’s sultry French wife Dorcas, a sculptress whose powerfully animistic, “primitive and dramatic” half-human figures hewed out of wood hint at elemental experiences Gillian is only beginning to imagine. Their correlative is Andre’s classroom mantra “Go deeper. Go for the jugular.” As Gillian becomes the latest of a number of students made the Harrows’ sexual and domestic slaves, Andre’s imperative that artists must acknowledge their pagan, animal natures and act accordingly is ironically fulfilled as is the motto engraved on Dorcas’s creations: “WE ARE BEASTS AND THIS IS OUR CONSOLATION.”
It’s not subtle, but it works. Whenever Oates (Middle Age, p. 970, etc.) composes at this length, she doesn’t pad or overwrite. The result is a cunning fusion of Gothic romance and psychological horror story, and one of her best recent books.