Friday, March 18, 2011

The Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates

I have a few friends, whose opinions I normally trust, who have been prodding me into reading Joyce Carol Oates.  I'm not really sure why I was hesitant at first, maybe it was as simple as having other books I would rather read instead.  Anyway, long story short, I tend to buy quite a few books at The Dollar Tree, well because they are a dollar.  Sometimes they have absolutely nothing I would ever want to read, most of the time they have one or two books that if I had to pay more than a dollar, I probably wouldn't read.  I'm a little more adventurous though when I only have to cough up a buck.

One of those books I decided to take a chance on was The Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates.  I figured it would be a good way to get my friends off my back.  The fact the cover said it was "Tales of Mystery And Suspense" was even better.  I'm on a short story kick right now.  I find reading them easier than a full length novel.  With a collection of short stories, if you aren't loving something, you can either move on to the next or tough it out since it's only a short section.

That whole thing about being tales of mystery and suspense was a little misleading.  As was the synopsis in the dust jacket, the reason I decided not to share it with you.  In a vague sort of way, the description works.  This is where my review may not make all that much sense.  So if you don't want to read any more of it, don't feel obligated to.  My last warning to you is this, this may be a lengthy review because I'm using this as a way to formulate my thoughts on this one.  I'm not sure what I'm going to be typing, but I don't think it would be a fair, accurate review if I go back and change anything.

This is a collection of 9 previously published short stories that use violence and the promise of violence to illuminate or showcase social dysfunctions that dominates the lives of the various women highlighted in each tale.  Each story tells the story of a female that for one reason or another kills someone else.  None of the stories are told in a straight forward manner that would allow you to just read the words without really thinking of what you are reading.  They are all designed to force you to think and reason out why things are happening the way they are.  Some of the conclusions reached aren't that comfortable to think about.

Some of them are in physically or mentally abusive relationships, and when the woman reaches her breaking point, the only option they have left is to kill their abuser.  Not all the abusive relationships end with the "abuser" being killed.  One young woman, "Doll: A Romance of the Mississippi",  is sold into prostitution by her stepfather.  By the end of the story though, you aren't really sure which one is the victim and which the abuser.  The fact the young lady likes to slash her johns from time to time, doesn't help matters.  It forces you to rethink viewpoints on abuse and manipulation in relationships.  Who was really in charge between the two was a little hazy, but I think I would have to go with the young lady.  She was the true villain of the piece, not her stepfather.

Two of the stories, "The Banshee" and "Hunger" use the promise of violence to explore two very different individuals who just want something they feel is missing.  "Banshee" told from the viewpoint of a six year old girl who just wants her mommy and daddy to pay attention to her.  Her parents have divorced, mom is now with a new man and has had another baby.  Dad isn't around much and with Mom paying more attention to her new husband and baby boy, the little girl is obviously feeling some jealousy and abandonment issues.  It all comes to a head at a beach barbecue at their vacation home.  The little girl is feeling neglected and lonely and just wants someone to love her and pay attention.  She's hoping daddy will show up but gets concerned that he won't be able to find her.  So her six year old brain comes up with the only solution she can think of.  She has to get as high as she can so everyone can see her.  On her way to the widow's walk on the top of the house, she picks up her baby brother and brings him with.  Once she's out on that roof though, it's obvious what's going to happen, though the story ends mere seconds before the fatal plunge actually happens.  What I love about this story is that there is no dialogue, it's all the inner monologue the girl has going through her mind.  She just wants to be loved.  She doesn't undertand why her life has changed so much and she wants everything to go back the way it was, everything.

"The Hunger" on the other hand is about a young, married mother who would seem to have everything going for her.  A rich husband and a beautiful daughter to look after, a gorgeous home, the life most of us would want.  While on vacation, without her husband, at her aunt's beach cottage, she meets a young man who is about to change her life forever.  It's start off innocent enough, then the affair starts.  She thinks nothing of it, she is only going to be there for a few more days.  What could it hurt?  When a man is murdered, strangled by his male lover she doesn't automatically connect her young man to the crime.  After some thought she does consider it, mainly because of the way they met.  Once she gets home, he follows her a few days later and her life is flipped upside down.  She continues the affair and even blames the husband for not being there on vacation with her.  It's his fault that he wasn't here to protect his family, who cares she's the one who jumped into bed with a complete stranger.  She doesn't know what she had been missing, she just knows she was missing something.  Her lover eventually talks her into killing her husband, another thing she blames the husband for, taking no responsibility for herself.  When the day comes though, as they are walking on the beach towards the spot the lover is supposed to ambush them, things may not be all they had seemed to be.  She may have felt trapped into doing this, but which of them is really going to die.  The story lets you think it could go either way, but either the lover or her husband will die within seconds of the story ending.

The rest of the stories are just as compelling, even the ones I didn't like as much.  These are definitely not an average collection of murder mysteries.  They aren't written like them and I think it's a disservice to call them that.  They are told with various viewpoints, with women from all walks of life and all ages.  The one thing they have in common is that they all involve women or girls who are in situations they see no other way out of.  Someone has to die in order for them to move on with their lives.  Some of them are down right manipulative and evil, but most are something else.  Most of them are caught up in situations they feel they can't control, that the choices they make have to be made.  The fact that they do have choices in life and murder isn't their only option, makes their choice hard to understand.  Even when you could see yourself acting the same way in the situation, what they do horrifies you.  It gives you a look into the what all of us, not just women, are capable of.  There is a little murder in all of us.  It's just not always pretty to look at.

I promise this will be my last paragraph, promise.  I wanted to end this by saying that everyone I know who enjoys Joyce Carol Oates has told me that short stories are not her forte.  That she is better at writing full length novels.  I will admit that some of the stories didn't work for me and that some weren't as tight as they could have been,  I'm still amazed by the impact she wrote into each one of them.  If she is only mediocre at short stories, I can't wait to read what she does with a full length book.  I think I'm now going to listen to my friends more often when the tell me to read someone.

Challenges: A-Z, M&S, FF


Michelle Stockard Miller said...

I have a couple of her short story anthologies, but haven't read them yet. I don't have this one. I need to rush over to the Dollar Tree today and see if they have it. This sounds like one I should check out. Your review was great, Ryan. You really gave insight into the book without giving too much away.

bermudaonion said...

Wow, it sounds like you got a lot of bang for your buck! I have grown to enjoy short stories more here lately, so this sounds good to me. I wonder if our Dollar Tree has it.

Unknown said...

I've only read a couple of her short stories. The one that stuck with me was called "Feral" in an old copy of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction I found years ago at a used-bookstore. Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

These just sound too tough to read for me. To be honest, I tend to stay away from such weighty topics. Fun and light is more my style lately.

Laurel-Rain Snow said...

From my experience, the short story collections are often very dark, even macabre, as illustrated by the one you read.

Some of the novels follow the same path, but others (my favorites) are the ones that seemingly mimic true life stories in fictionalized form. Like Blonde (loosely based on Marilyn Monroe's life), and My Sister, My Love (based on the Jon-Benet Ramsey murder).

Another of my favorites is We Were the Mulvaneys.

Hope you do explore some of the novels. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this collection, which I haven't read...yet.

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

I am a Joyce Carol oates fan and have read several of her novels, though I am not aware of this collection of short stories. I am not too much of a fan of them, in general so I will probably skip it.
I am seeing Joyce on her library tour of her new memoir, A Widow's Walk, next week.

Anonymous said...

I didn't need any other impetus but this: "Each story tells the story of a female that for one reason or another kills someone else." I skipped the rest so that I would be surprised. I'm glad that you finally discovered Joyce Carol Oates!

Staci said...

That was definitely a worthwhile buy. I have loved a lot of her books...good luck with reading some of her other works!

Whitney said...

I love Joyce Carol Oates via. Although, I haven't read her for several years, this one looks like a good reintroduction.

Also, I read your comment about the FF Challenge link page and it appears that Blogger ate that post. The new one is here:

I think I recollected all the proper reviews but let me know if I missed any!

Thanks again for participating in my challenge and I apologize for the inconvenience.