The latest in Oates’ (Beautiful Days, 2018, etc.) vast bibliography further explores the tense dynamic between lust and revulsion that has been the terrain of much of the author's recent work.
The characters who wince through this intimate, unrelenting collection are people who live on the periphery of larger lives. We meet a frustrated faculty wife whose identity has been eclipsed by both her husband and his lovely female students (“The Long-Legged Girl”); a teenage boy whose lusts are baffled by the double-speak of an adult world that castigates him even as it draws him in (“Sign of the Beast”); a mistress waiting in doubled yearning and disgust for her brutish lover’s arrival (“The Woman in the Window”). A longtime master of the unreliable narrator, Oates lures the reader into compacts with characters whose sympathies turn out to be warped or downright murderous. Is the pitiable L____ in “Walking Wounded” excising snippets of sadist eroticism from a scholar’s posthumous work, or is he creating them in his own active life? Is the grown son in the title story the victim of his father’s paranoid madness or the inheritor of his infectious damnation? In the most challenging story of the collection, “The Experimental Subject,” Oates details the scientific process by which N____, a senior lab technician at a prestigious university, woos the unwitting woman who will gestate the first human/chimpanzee hybrid fetus. N____, who is described as having “the advantage of invisibility that is the particular prerogative of his species: deceptively bland Asian face, wire-rimmed eyeglasses, short-cropped very black glossy hair,” chooses the dim, hopelessly naïve Mary Frances for her isolation, her vulnerability, her “stolid mammalian figure,” and her coincidental likeness to the chimpanzee sperm donor who fathers her child. It is a fever dream of a story—forthrightly nightmarish—which gleefully transgresses the boundaries of identity politics in favor of the earthiest of human truths, and yet there is very little work done to examine the moral implications of the situation from the other side of those boundaries. As with many of the stories in the collection, “The Experimental Subject” ends in a flurry of unlikely action, signifying not so much character or plot resolution as the author’s weariness of the situation in which her characters have been embroiled.
Consummately well-written, stylistically dashing, but lacking a commitment to engage with the trickier dilemmas of race, class, and gender Oates uses to motivate her plots.