Haunted, wounded, isolated characters people Oates’ latest collection.
In most of these 12 previously published stories, Oates (DIS MEM BER and Other Stories of Mysteries and Suspense, 2017, etc.) reprises characters who appear in much of her fiction: lonely, frustrated, and obsessed individuals trapped in relationships that offer no solace, satisfaction, or even recognition of who they really are. Lest readers fail to see a Chekhov-ian influence, Oates’ central character in “Big Burnt” is a 40-something, twice divorced actress who attracts the attention of a taciturn Harvard scientist when she performs in The Cherry Orchard. Accompanying him on a weekend outing, she tries to amuse her preoccupied lover by behaving like “the ingénue Nina of The Seagull. She heard her voice just too perceptibly loud, rather raw, over-eager.” But she cannot alleviate Mikael’s suffering: over his “disintegrated” marriage, his children’s “disenchantment,” and, most recently, the accusation that he deliberately falsified data. He toys with the idea of killing himself: “Blow out my brains,” he reflects ruefully, had “a Chekhovian ring...a remark, melancholy, yet bemused. A joke!” There are no jokes, though, in Oates’ dark fictions. In “Fleuve Bleu,” the idea of illicit love, at first seeming like a “small gemstone” fingered in a secret pocket, turns into an unwanted burden. In “Owl Eyes,” an unhappy single mother is preoccupied by failure. Three stories consider the plights of embittered, angry, and arrogant academics. Distinguished intellectuals, Oates reports, often display “aggression…masked by a perverse sort of passivity.” Two surprisingly inventive tales appear in a section of fantasy and surrealism. “Les Beaux Jours” is narrated by a young girl so seduced by an erotic painting with that title that she enters its world to become the Master’s model only to discover that she can never return to her “old, lost life.” In “Fractal,” a boy obsessed with fractals and architectural drawings is swallowed up in a windowless, labyrinthian Fractal Museum. The overly long “Undocumented Alien,” though, about an immigrant who becomes a subject of neurological manipulation, is far less successful.
A mixed, occasionally satisfying, volume.