In Beautiful Days, the prolific author once again delivers a selection of skillfully written stories as powerful as any she has produced in her long and distinguished career.
A very strong collection. . . . Oates is a master of many different kinds of story.”
%COMM_CONTRIB%New York Times Book Review
Oates (A Book of American Martyrs) toes the line between condemnation of and fascination with her characters in this collection of ethical failures. In part one, the characters’ self-definitions blind them to the pain they cause themselves and each other—as in “Fleuve Bleu,” in which lovers promise complete honesty and deliver needless pain. In the second part, assumptions, biases, and privilege stymie awareness among people of different races, genders, and body types. In “Except You Bless Me,” a white adjunct composition instructor suspects without clear cause that a black student has been sending her hate mail. In the collection’s speculative, fabulist third act, there are clear victims—the only characters readers will find sympathetic. In “Fractal,” a boy becomes separated (both physically and emotionally) from his mother as they tour a fractal museum. In “David Barthelme Saved from Oblivion,” a string of children leads an alcoholic writer away from his favorite liquor store. Throughout the book, the characters speak to themselves at least as often as they speak to each other. The Pushcart-winning “Undocumented Alien” is composed entirely of lab notes by postdocs more concerned with their work conditions than the ethics of their research. In Oates’s narrowly constructed cast of ivory tower intelligentsia, subtle, toxic failings go unchecked. (Feb.)
With her usual acute grasp of human psychology, the prolific, multi-award-winning Oates delivers a hefty volume of short stories in three parts. Pieces in the first section mostly explore lacerating relationships that are broken or breaking. A married man tires of the daring and dazzling honesty he and his younger lover, also married, once shared; as he returns later, when she has cancer, she shouts him down. A man plots to implicate a woman who loves him in his death, and elsewhere, a couple for whom marriage "is an affable not-quite-hearing" bend but perhaps don't break under the strain of a daughter's death. The second section features identity confusion, with a white woman convinced that the black nurse easing her pain is the hostile student she once tried to help, and a professor who is intrigued by a staring woman learns that she thought he was deceased. In the final section, a young woman worships the reckless "master" who controls her and an African student unprepared for an American university education is deprived of his visa and subjected to horrific indignities. VERDICT Perceptive, unmissable work. [See Prepub Alert, 8/28/17.]
Haunted, wounded, isolated characters people Oates' latest collection.In most of these 12 previously published stories, Oates (DIS MEM BER and Other Stories of Mysteries and Suspense, 2017, etc.) reprises characters who appear in much of her fiction: lonely, frustrated, and obsessed individuals trapped in relationships that offer no solace, satisfaction, or even recognition of who they really are. Lest readers fail to see a Chekhov-ian influence, Oates' central character in "Big Burnt" is a 40-something, twice divorced actress who attracts the attention of a taciturn Harvard scientist when she performs in The Cherry Orchard. Accompanying him on a weekend outing, she tries to amuse her preoccupied lover by behaving like "the ingénue Nina of The Seagull. She heard her voice just too perceptibly loud, rather raw, over-eager." But she cannot alleviate Mikael's suffering: over his "disintegrated" marriage, his children's "disenchantment," and, most recently, the accusation that he deliberately falsified data. He toys with the idea of killing himself: "Blow out my brains," he reflects ruefully, had "a Chekhovian ring...a remark, melancholy, yet bemused. A joke!" There are no jokes, though, in Oates' dark fictions. In "Fleuve Bleu," the idea of illicit love, at first seeming like a "small gemstone" fingered in a secret pocket, turns into an unwanted burden. In "Owl Eyes," an unhappy single mother is preoccupied by failure. Three stories consider the plights of embittered, angry, and arrogant academics. Distinguished intellectuals, Oates reports, often display "aggression…masked by a perverse sort of passivity." Two surprisingly inventive tales appear in a section of fantasy and surrealism. "Les Beaux Jours" is narrated by a young girl so seduced by an erotic painting with that title that she enters its world to become the Master's model only to discover that she can never return to her "old, lost life." In "Fractal," a boy obsessed with fractals and architectural drawings is swallowed up in a windowless, labyrinthian Fractal Museum. The overly long "Undocumented Alien," though, about an immigrant who becomes a subject of neurological manipulation, is far less successful.A mixed, occasionally satisfying, volume.