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IN BRIEF

FICTION : WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?: Selected Early Stories by Joyce Carol Oates (Ontario Review Press: $24.95; 520 pp. )

April 11, 1993|MICHAEL HARRIS

"How do we keep up with her?" readers of Joyce Carol Oates ask in admiration and despair. Pop authors are expected to crank out a novel a year, but serious fiction demands to be savored slowly, the way an anaconda digests a pig--and the suspicion persists (probably unjustly in Oates' case) that a writer so unrelentingly prolific has to be skimping on quality. Probably unjustly, because how many of us have read her whole output? It may not be until long after her death that her work is properly evaluated, the chitlins separated from the chops.

In addition to her novels, Oates has written more than 400 short stories--"a number," she says in the afterword to this collection, "as daunting . . . to me as to any other (person)." Here, as if to help us keep up, she offers 25 stories that appeared in the 1960s and '70s in "By the North Gate," "Upon the Sweeping Flood," "The Wheel of Love," "Marriages and Infidelities," "The Goddess and Other Women" and "Night-Side," plus two stories not previously collected.

A major writer seems to move through three stages. First, she masters her own experience--and even the earliest of these stories, "The Fine White Mist of Winter," written when Oates was 19, shows the raw, primal power that has always belied the delicate face in her dust-jacket photos. Second, she connects with literary tradition--as evidenced by some of the increasingly experimental stories in the latter half of this book: "The Dead," "The Lady With the Pet Dog," "The Turn of the Screw." Third, she connects with the major issues of her time. Oates has done this directly in recent works--think of last year's Chappaquiddick novel, "Black Water"--but we can see her building up to it here, working and reworking themes of feminism, race relations, mental illness, urban malaise and the violence that pulses just below the skin of American life.

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