Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sour love.

Joyce Carol Oates, grande dame of American writing, returns with Sourland, a collection of short stories. Sourland may be Oates' darkest, dreariest, most unrelentingly violent and bitter work yet.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, widows and widowhood figure very heavily in Sourland. Oates lost her beloved husband, Raymond Smith, in 2008. She's since remarried, but loss and bereavement are like a razor-edged ribbon that run through her stories - coupled with an astonishing amount of rage at the departed. The bewildered, coddled widow, suddenly thrust into an independent life for which she's ill-prepared, with disastrous results, appears repeatedly throughout the book.

Sourland opens with "Pumpkin-Head." Sheltered new widow Hadley waits for a visit from an awkward younger man who has his own violent agenda. "The Story of the Stabbing" retells a woman's witnessing of a stabbing from different viewpoints, including her angry daughter's. In "Babysitter," a wealthy young wife travels to an assignation in the city that both is and isn't exactly what she was hoping it would be. "Bonobo Momma," an account of a young girl who spends a disastrous afternoon with her beautiful, remote former-model mother, strikes a false note with the mother's almost caricature-like voice.

In "Amputee," a young double-amputee embarks on a strange love affair and is disgusted to find herself turned into a fetish object by her lover. In "Honor Code," a young girl goes to visit her cousin, in a half-way house after being released from prison on manslaughter charges for beating the man the girl's mother was having an affair with."Probate," the book's most unsettling and violent story, follows a confused and tremulous widow attempting to navigate a confusing and dangerous bureaucracy (reminiscient of an earlier Oates story, in which a desperate shopper is murdered by the staff of an exclusive boutique). Oates nails the disinterested-yet-obstructive attitude of minor bureaucrats and security guards, but the violent interlude in the center feels unnecessary and strangely dreamlike.

"Donor Organs" is the hardest story to read, a nine-page run-on sentence with odd spacing between the words. In "Death Certificate," a widow (young and vital, this time) comes to pick up a death certificate and meets an old flame. In "Uranus," a deranged young man claiming to be an intergalatic emissary unsettles the wealthy wife of a professor at her own party. In "Lost Daddy," a father takes out his rage on his young son.

"Sourland," the final and longest story, includes another widow who travels to remote Sourland Falls, Minnesota, to meet a man long thought dead in his remote mountain cabin.

Certain themes wind throughout Sourland, most obviously that of widows, mostly unprepared to navigate their life without the protective bulwark of their husbands. Infidelity, rape, violence, and the guilty race and privilege consciousness of Oates' mostly upper-class, white wives and widows also permeates the stories.

There is nothing hopeful in Sourland. Bodies are bruised, violated, and assaulted. Marriages end in death or adultery, and family is alternately dangerous, constricting, or dissolving altogether.

That Oates is a powerhouse of a writer goes without saying, although the unrelentingly darkness of Sourland feels almost like an assault, with each story like punch after punch.

Certainly no reflection of the writing, but the hardcover imprint of Sourland (published by Ecco, a division of Harper Collins) is extraordinarily poorly edited and rife with typos.

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