A term I can adamantly use to describe Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories is interwoven relationships. Even in her darker tales, Oates displays a penchant for the deeply emotional and the unexplored corners of human interaction, and her new anthology of short stories, Beautiful Days is no different.
There is no single approach to every story because even though they all circle around the same theme, none are likened to each other. In “Fleuve Bleu”, a man and a woman married to other people try to navigate a tumultuous and passionate affair at the time time, attempting to decipher their feelings for each other. The narrator is an upper-class middle-aged business man who one day standing on a bridge, is transfixed by a woman decades younger than himself. As cliched as this may sound, it isn’t so in the hands of Joyce Carol Oates, who turns the story into a study of personality and societal norms, seen when the man attempts to shake off his infatuation by finding faults with his lover’s clothes, physical appearance and financial status.
In “Les Beaux Jours”, a young girl who frequently visits a museum becomes trapped inside one of its paintings, enslaved to the canvas’ creator whom she calls ‘Master.’ Coincidentally, I wrote a story like this once for a creative writing class. Not identical of course, or nearly as accomplished and saturated with trepidation.
In my tale, it is the painter who becomes trapped inside his own work, bound to the painting by the ties of his own arrogance and ego. But here, the girl appeals repeatedly to her estranged father who has left her behind after a nasty divorce from her mother. As she describes her entrapment, her pleas to her father become more desperate, more insistent and inevitably, more resigned.
“Fractal” is a difficult one to process. An intellectually gifted boy and his mother decide to visit a unique museum, one of the few stops during a mother-son outing. ‘The Fractal Museum’ is an oddity, where time seems to fold into itself and things are not what they seem. By the time the story is over, we are left breathless and somewhat disoriented with the infinite possibility of forks in the road and if we ever know whether we have made the right choice.
“The Quiet Car” is a cautionary tale that warns of arrogance and mistaken impressions. A writer waiting on the platform for his train, sees a face from his past, a student who was enrolled in a seminar he taught many years before. He thinks with derision of her name, Carol Carson and remarks to himself: “That bland, generic name! He recalls what a strain it had been to feign interest in the earnest young woman, who’d seemed even at the time, at least twenty-five years ago, on the brink of middle age.”
It goes on, the constant internal barrage against a young woman he barely knew. The writer makes fun of the girl’s incipient crush on him, of her nervous demeanor when speaking to him. He congratulates himself when he brought her grade purposefully down to comply with an administrative statistical rule, and selects her because he knows she won’t defend herself.
But if all this seems profoundly unfair, which it is, suffice to say that it turns out that Carol Carson is not what she seemed. Wisely and brilliantly, Oates leaves the final reveal almost for the last line in the story, which has the effect not only of surprise but also unsurprisingly, of triumph.
“Undocumented Alien” is one of the last stories, but by no means the least shocking. No doubt responding to a current political and social stand in which undocumented immigrants are denigrated and rejected, the story depicts a student from Nigeria who abruptly loses his student visa. This puts him in the hands of government agencies who blackmail him into cooperating for experiments in exchange for not being immediately deported. It isn’t difficult to speculate that the story will not end well for the student, but the scenario that Oates imagines is by far a dystopian nightmare, crafted in a way that is incredibly believable. Much more than we would like it to be, no doubt.
Beautiful Days are eleven short stories, of which I have only mentioned some But they aren’t by any means less intense and emotive than Joyce Carol Oates’ longer novels. Take care when you read these. In the hands of a writer like Oates, the normal becomes the bizarre, love becomes illness, motherhood becomes an illusion.
These stories are everything that we know as true and, at the same time, everything we don’t.