Faithless: Tales of Transgressionby Joyce Carol Oates
Special feature! This e-book edition contains "Dark Work," our exclusive interview with Joyce Carol Oates.
In this collection of twenty-one unforgettable stories, Joyce Carol Oates explores the mysterious private lives of men and women with vivid, unsparing precision and sympathy.See more details below
Special feature! This e-book edition contains "Dark Work," our exclusive interview with Joyce Carol Oates.
In this collection of twenty-one unforgettable stories, Joyce Carol Oates explores the mysterious private lives of men and women with vivid, unsparing precision and sympathy.
THE MURDERERS, adulterers and suicide victims who inhabit the pages of Joyce Carol Oates' newest collection can be found at prestigious art institutes, in 7-Elevens or awaiting jury duty in a West Virginia county courthouse. Abandoning traditional landscapes for contemporary terrain, Oates writes about brooding souls who follow perverse impulses and live to tell the tales of their trespasses.
Divided into three parts, the book begins with stories of fractured or violent love. The first story, "Au Sable," is a quiet, melancholy account of an infirm, aging man who calls his son-in-law to tell him of the decision he and his wife have made to commit suicide in the family's summer cabin in the Adirondacks. The narrator of "Summer Sweat" recalls "the most destructive love affair of her life," which caused her more misery than elation. "Gunlove" is a series of vignettes narrated by a young woman with an erotic attachment to firearms.
The title story is a haunting masterpiece that questions the reliability of memory and community myths. In this mystery, two grown women, Cornelia and Constance Nissenbaum, recall the disappearance of their mother when they were children. Cornelia's daughter narrates the story, weighing out the two very different accounts given by her aunt and mother. Selected for a Pushcart Prize and included in the 1998 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories, it serves as a turning point in the collection; the stories that follow are all mysteries and tales of horror that immediately call to mind the work of Edgar Allan Poe.
As in Poe's tales, some of Oates' narrators are madmen who confess murderous obsessions in lucid prose. Othersare innocent bystanders who bear witness to horrendous events. Sometimes the author steps in as an omniscient narrator. Like Poe, Oates merges the Gothic conventions with modern social and political concerns, creating stories that feel at once antique and new. But she also shares Poe's love of dark humor and a good hoax. The narrator of "The Vampire" is a tool-and-die designer who reunites with his cousin, an artist, when they are both summoned to jury duty for a murder trial in a small West Virginia courthouse. While they wait in a jury selection room, the artist speaks of his obsession with the wife of his recently deceased friend. Convinced that the wife is a vampire, the artist confesses his plans to gun her down. In "Deathwatch," a jaded New York reporter working the capital punishment beat goes to Birmingham, Alabama, to cover a routine execution in a state prison. Tired of coach-class airplane lunches, bad wine and the numbing repetitiveness of capital punishment trials, he charges an extravagant feast for the condemned man on his credit card because he can't bear the thought of him eating a Big Mac for his last meal.
Perhaps what makes these stories most indebted to Poe is their self-reflexive quality, their willingness to play with the disparity between reality and its artificial rendering in fiction. In "The High School Sweetheart: A Mystery," a psychological suspense mystery writer named R is elected president of the American Mystery Writers. Suddenly thrilled, but also filled with self-doubt, he thinks, "There was something of horror in the lifelong contemplation of mystery; a sick, visceral helplessness that must be transformed into control, and mastery."
One can't help but suspect that this is Oates contemplating her own prolific career of transforming acts of horror, madness and weird sexuality into masterful works of fiction. In the afterword to her collection Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: Selected Early Stories, she writes, "Over a period of three decades I seem to have published somewhere beyond 400 short storiesa number as daunting, or more daunting to me, as to any other. The motives have nearly always to do with memorializing people, or a landscape, or an event, or a profound and riddlesome experience that can only be contemplated in the solitude of art." Ultimately, it's not her morbid subject matter that makes this collection compelling but her willingness to imagine the short story in so many different ways. Each story should be read slowly and independently. When read in rapid succession, they glut the reader with the darkest sensation.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt
Early evening, August. In the stillness of the suburban house, the telephone rang. Mitchell hesitated only a moment before lifting the receiver. And here was the first wrong note. The caller was Mitchell's father-in-law, Otto Behn.
Not for years had Otto called before the phone rates went down at 11 P.M. Not even when Otto's wife Teresa had been hospitalized.
The second wrong note. The voice. "Mitch? Hello! It's me Otto." Otto's voice was oddly lifted, eager, as if Otto were a farther distance away than usual and worried that Mitchell couldn't hear him. And he sounded affable, even buoyant -- as Otto rarely was these days on the phone. Lizbeth, Otto's daughter, had come to dread his calls in the late evening: as soon as you picked up the phone, Otto would launch into one of his riffs, complaint-tirades, deadpan, funny, but with a cold fury beneath, in the long-ago style of Lenny Bruce, whom Otto had much admired in the late 1950s. Now, in his eighties, Otto had himself become an angry man: angry about his wife's cancer, angry about his own "chronic condition," angry about their Forest Hills neighbors (noisy kids, barking dogs, lawn mowers, leaf blowers), angry about being made to wait two hours "in a refrigerated room" for his most recent MRI, angry about politicians, including even those he'd helped canvass votes for in the first heady flush of his retirement from high school teaching fifteen years ago. It was old age that Otto was angry about, but who could tell the poor man that? Not his daughter, and certainly not his son-in-law.
Tonight, though, Otto wasn't angry.
In a warmly genial, if slightly forced voice he queried Mitchell about Mitchell's work, which was corporate architectural design; and about Lizbeth, who was the Behns' only daughter; and about their grown, beautiful, departed children, Otto's grandchildren he'd adored as kids and this went on for a while until at last Mitchell said uneasily, "Uh, Otto -- Lizbeth is out at the mall. She'll be back around seven. Should I have her call you?"
Otto laughed loudly. You could all but see the saliva glistening on his full, fleshy lips. "Don't want to talk to the old man, eh?"
Mitchell tried to laugh, too. "Otto, we've been talking."
Otto said, more seriously, "Mitch, my friend, I'm glad you picked up. Not Bethie. I can't talk long and I'd prefer, I guess, to talk to you."
"Yes?" Mitchell felt a touch of dread. Never in their thirty years of acquaintance had Otto Behn called him "friend." Teresa must be out of remission again. Dying? Otto himself had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease three years before. Not a severe case, yet. Or was it?
Guiltily Mitchell realized that he and Lizbeth hadn't visited the older couple in almost a year, though they lived less than two hundred miles away. Lizbeth was dutiful about telephoning, usually Sunday evenings, hoping (usually futilely) to speak first with her mother, whose telephone manner was weakly cheerful and optimistic; but the last time they'd visited, they'd been shocked by Teresa's deterioration. The poor woman had had months of chemotherapy and was bone-thin, her skin like wax. Not long ago, in her sixties, she'd been exuberant, fleshy, sturdy as an earthenware pot. And there was Otto, hovering about, tremors in both hands that he seemed to be exacerbating out of comic spite, complaining brilliantly about medical workers, HMOs, and UFOs "in conspiracy" -- what a strained, exhausting visit. On the drive home, Lizbeth recited lines from an Emily Dickinson poem -- "'Oh Life, begun in fluent Blood, and consummated dull!'"
"Jesus," Mitchell said, dry-mouthed, shivering. "That's it, isn't it?"
Now, ten months later, there was Otto on the phone speaking matter-of-factly, as you'd discuss selling some property, of a "certain decision" he and Teresa had come to. Teresa's "white-cell blood count," his own "shitty news" -- which he wasn't going to discuss. The books were closed permanently on that subject, he said. Mitchell, trying to make sense of this, leaned against a wall, suddenly weak. This is happening too fast. What the hell is this? Otto was saying, in a lowered voice, "We decided not to tell you and Lizbeth, her mother was back in Mount Sinai in July. They sent her home. We've made our decision. This isn't to discuss, Mitch, y'understand? It's to inform. And to ask you to honor our wishes."
"Wishes -- ?"
"We've been looking through albums, old photos and things, and having a ball of a time. Things I haven't seen in forty years. Teresa keeps saying, 'Wow! We did all this? We lived all that?' It's a weird, humbling thing, sort of, to realize we'd been goddamned happy, even when we didn't know it. I didn't have a clue, I've got to confess. So many years, looking back, sixty-two years Teresa and I've been together, you'd think it would be depressing as hell but actually, in the right mood, it isn't. Teresa says, 'We've already had about three lives, haven't we?' "
"Excuse me," Mitchell said, through a roaring of blood in his ears, "--what is this 'decision' you've made?"
Otto said, "Right. I'm asking you to honor our wishes in this respect, Mitch. I think you understand."
"I -- what?"
"I wasn't sure whether I should speak with Lizbeth. How she'd react. You know, when your kids first left home for college." Otto paused. Tactful. Ever the gentleman. Never would he speak critically about Lizbeth to Mitchell, though with Lizbeth he could be blunt and wounding, or had been in the past. He said now, hesitantly, "She can be, well -- emotional."
On a hunch Mitchell asked where Otto was.
"Are you in Forest Hills?"
Otto paused. "No, we're not."
"Where are you, then?"
Otto said, an edge of defiance in his voice, "At the cabin."
"The cabin? Au Sable?"
"Right. Au Sable."
Otto let that point sink in.
They pronounced the name differently. Mitchell, 0 Sable, three syllables; Otto, Oz'ble, one elided syllable, as locals pronounced it.
Au Sable meant the Behns' property in the Adirondacks. Hundreds of miles away. A seven-hour drive, and the final arduous hour along narrow, twisting, mostly unpaved mountain roads north of Au Sable Forks. So far as Mitchell knew, the Behns hadn't spent time there in years. If he'd given thought to it -- and he had not, for subjects pertaining to Lizbeth's parents were left to Lizbeth to ponder -- Mitchell would have advised the Behns to sell the property, hardly a cabin but a six-bedroom lodge of hand-hewn logs, not winterized, on twelve acres of beautiful, desolate countryside south of Mount Moriah. Mitchell would not have wished Lizbeth to inherit this property. For they wouldn't feel comfortable selling it, something that had meant so much at one time to Teresa and Otto; yet Au Sable was too remote for them, impractical. They were people who quickly became restless away from what they called civilization: pavement, newspapers, wine shops, decent tennis courts, friends, and at least the possibility of good restaurants. In Au Sable, you drove an hour to get to -- what? Au Sable Forks. Years ago, of course, when the kids were young, they'd gone each summer to visit Lizbeth's parents, and, yes, it was a fact: the Adirondacks were beautiful and waking early in the morning you saw Mount Moriah startlingly close like a mammoth dream and the air achingly fresh and pure piercing your lungs and even the cries of birds sharper and more defined than you were accustomed to and there was the conviction, unless it was the wish, that such physical revelations signaled a spiritual condition -- but, still, Lizbeth and Mitchell were equally restless to leave, after a few days of this. They'd take to afternoon naps in their second-story screened-in room surrounded by pines like a vessel afloat on a green-tinctured sea. Tender lovemaking and dreamy, drifting conversations of a kind they never had anywhere else. Still, after a few clays they were eager to leave.
Mitchell swallowed hard. He wasn't used to questioning his father-in-law and felt like one of Otto Behn's high school students, intimidated by the man he admired. "Otto, wait -- why are you and Teresa in Au Sable?"
Otto said carefully, "We are planning to remedy our situation. We have made our decision, and this is to -- " Otto paused, tactfully. "This is to inform you."
Mitchell felt, for all that Otto was speaking so reasonably, as if the man had kicked him in the stomach. What was this? What was he hearing? This call isn't for me. This is a mistake. Otto was saying that they'd been planning this for three years, minimum. Since his own diagnosis. They'd been "stockpiling" what was required. Good potent reliable barbiturates. Nothing in haste, and nothing left to chance, and nothing to regret. "You know," Otto said expansively, " -- I'm a man who plans ahead."
This was true. You had to concede the point.
Mitchell wondered: how much had Otto accumulated? Investments in the 1980s, some rental properties on Long Island. Mitchell felt a sinking, sickening sensation. They will leave most of it to us. Who else? He could see Teresa smiling as she'd smiled planning her lavish Christmas dinners, her monumental Thanksgivings, the presentation of gifts to grandchildren, gorgeously wrapped. Otto was saying, "You promise me, Mitchell. I need to trust you," and Mitchell said, "Look, Otto," stalling, dazed, " -- do we have your number there?" and Otto said, "Answer me, please," and Mitchell heard himself saying, not knowing what he was saying, "Of course you can trust me, Otto! But is your phone connected?" and Otto said, annoyed, "No. We've never needed a phone in the cabin," and Mitchell said, for this had been an old vexation between them, from years ago, "Certainly you need a phone in that cabin, that's exactly the place you do need a phone," and Otto muttered something inaudible, the verbal equivalent of a shrug, and Mitchell thought, He's calling from a pay phone in Au Sable Forks, he's about to hang up. Quickly Mitchell said, "Hey, look: we'll drive up and see you two. Is Teresa -- all right?" Otto said, reflexively, "Teresa's fine. She's good. And we don't want company." Then, "She's resting, she's out on the sleeping porch, and she's all right. Au Sable was her idea, she always loved it." Mitchell said, groping, "But -- you're so remote." Otto said, "That is the idea, Mitchell." He's going to hang up. He can't hang up. Mitchell was trying to stall, asking how long they'd been there, and Otto said, "Since Sunday. We took two days, we did fine. I can still drive." Otto laughed; it was his old anger stirring, his rage. A few years ago he'd nearly lost his driver's license and somehow through a doctor-friend's intervention he'd managed to hang onto it, and that had not been a good thing, that could have been a fatal error, but you can't tell Otto Behn that, you can't tell an elderly man he will have to surrender his car, his freedom, you just can't. Mitchell was saying they'd drive up to visit, they'd leave at dawn next morning, and Otto was curt in rejecting the idea, saying, "We've made our decision, it's not to discuss. I'm glad I talked with you. I can see how this would be going, with Lizbeth. You prepare her however you think's best, OK?" and Mitch said, "OK, but Otto -- don't do anything," he was breathing fast, confused and not knowing what he said, in a sweat, a sensation like something cold and molten pouring over him, "-- too quickly. Will you call back? Or leave a number? Lizbeth win be home in half an hour," and Otto said, "Teresa feels she would rather write to Lizbeth, and you. That's her way. She doesn't like the phone any more," and Mitch said, "But at least talk to Lizbeth, Otto, I mean you can say anything, y'know, any subject," and Otto said, "I've asked you to honor our wishes, Mitchell. You gave your word," and Mitchell thought, I did? When? What word did I give? What is this? Otto was saying, "We left everything in order, at the house. On my desk. Will, insurance policies, investment files, bankbooks, keys. Teresa had to nag me to update our wills. But I did, and I'm damned glad. Until you make out a final will, you just aren't facing facts. You're in a dreamworld. After eighty, you are in a dreamworld and you have to take control of the way the dream's going." Mitchell was listening, but he'd missed the beat. His thoughts crowded and flashed in his head like playing cards wildly dealt. "Otto, right! Yes -- but maybe we should talk more about this? You can offer valuable advice! Why don't you wait awhile and -- we'll drive up to see you, we'll leave at dawn tomorrow, or actually we could leave tonight-" and Otto interrupted, you'd have said rudely if you didn't know the man, "Hey, good night! This call is costing me a fortune. You kids, we love you."
Otto hung up the phone.
When Lizbeth came home, there was a wrong, slightly jarring note: Mitchell on the back terrace, in the dusk; alone, just sitting there, with a glass of something. "Honey? What's wrong?"
"Just waiting for you."
Never did Mitchell sit like this, wait like this, always his mind was engaged, this was something wrong but Lizbeth came to him and kissed his cheek, lightly. A smell of wine. Heated skin, damp hair. What you'd call a clammy sweat. His T-shirt soaked through. Teasing, Lizbeth said, indicating the glass in Mitchell's hand, "You've started without me. Isn't this early?" Strange, too, that Mitchell would have opened this particular bottle of wine: a gift from friends, in fact it might have been from Lizbeth's parents, years ago when Mitchell had been more serious about wine and hadn't had to cut back on his drinking. Lizbeth asked, hesitantly, "Any calls?"
"Not a thing."
Mitchell felt Lizbeth's relief, knowing how she anticipated calls from Forest Hills. Though of course her dad wouldn't usually call until 11 P.M. when the rates went down.
Mitchell said, "It's been quiet all day, in fact. Everyone seems to be away except us."
Their split-level stucco-and-glass house, which Mitchell had designed, was surrounded by leafy birch trees, evergreens, and oaks. It was a created and not a discovered house; they'd shaped it to their will. They'd lived here for twenty-seven years. In the course of their long marriage, Mitchell had once or twice been unfaithful to Lizbeth, and Lizbeth may have been unfaithful to him, in her intense emotions if not sexually, but time had passed, and time continued to pass, like random items in a drawer casually tumbled together their days, weeks, months, and years in the entrancement of adult life; and this was a peaceful confusion, like a succession of vivid and startling dreams which, after you've awakened, you will be unable to recall except as emotions. The dreams were good, but it's good to be awake.
Lizbeth sat on the white wrought iron bench beside Mitchell. They'd had this heavy thing, now weatherworn and chipped after its most recent repainting, forever. "Everyone is away, I think. It's like Au Sable here."
"Au Sable?" Mitchell looked at her, quickly.
"You know. Mom's and Dad's old place."
"Do they still own it?"
"I guess so. I don't know." Lizbeth laughed, and leaned against him. "I'd be fearful of asking."
She took Mitchell's glass from his fingers and sipped from it. "Alone here. Us alone. I'll drink to that." To Mitchell's surprise, she kissed him on the lips. The first she'd kissed him, like that, girlish and bold, full on the lips, in a long time.
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