The Female of the Species
by Joyce Carol Oates
Quercus, £12.99, pp279
If Glenn Close's character in Adrian Lyne's 1987 movie Fatal Attraction had been a man, it's unlikely that the phrase 'bunny boiler' would have stuck around for the past 20 years. For all that women may now aspire to, and achieve, when it comes to mystery and horror, the female of the species is still, typically, a victim, a shorthand for vulnerability. Women in this genre are too empathetic for viciousness and too intuitive for sustained cruelty, except, very occasionally, when really badly provoked, like Thelma and Louise.
Joyce Carol Oates's latest volume of short stories presents women as pitiless perpetrators: violent activists who turn the familiar territory of adultery, stalking and murder on its head - and then set about slashing it with the carving knife as well.
There are nine stories, and if some betray Oates's quite astonishing productivity a little more than others, they all confirm her as writing with deft and powerful economy. As a general rule, the longer the stories are, the better. Her three best, which sit at the beginning, middle and end, are also the longest. Their heroines, or anti-heroines, are commonplace, often pitiable creatures whose lives slither easily towards calamity, one bad decision all too often leading to a place of gory no return.
Frequently, sex is simmering just below the surface of the violence. Two of the best stories explore the desperate compulsion of desire. In 'So Help Me God', the thrill of being treated as a sexual object leads a teenage girl, 'an honours student vowing to remain a virgin all her life' (and called, significantly enough, Lucretia), to overlook the fact that she is being emotionally raped. Revelling in the sexual charge of a sadomasochistic relationship, she abandons her family and her prospects to marry a manipulative and brutal older man who drives her to fearful distraction.
In 'Hunger', a young mother called Kristine is spending the summer on Cape Cod, away from her rich, older Bostonian banker husband when she meets a beautiful, wild-looking young man on a beach. She knows he's a drifter, spongeing off the rich people along the coast, a chameleon capable of being whatever people want him to be. She thinks he might be a murderer. But she can't stop wanting him and so, quite deliberately, choosing wickedness.
The final story, 'Angel of Mercy', intertwines the stories of two nurses working on the same gothically horrible hospital ward, 50 years apart, caring for 'tumour-ridden spastics with furred eyes, catatonics oozing ashy sweat, palsied Parkinson's victims, honeycomb brains split neatly in half'. Their caring is of a rather specialised nature: they both become serial killers. At this point in the collection, it comes as no great surprise, but 'Angel of Mercy' explores attitudes towards the dying with unblinking honesty - the resentment, fantasy, disappointment, revulsion and boredom.
Oates gets inside the heads of her perpetrators, whether she's writing about a collagen-injected, neurotically skinny 5th Avenue shopper, or the Mississippi child-prostitute, Doll, who carefully presents herself as 'a fascinating mix of mute, shy, sly naughty girl and something sullen beneath, like the beat of hard rock'. Joyce Carol Oates is a writer capable of raising and playing with ethical questions without being forced into judgments. And, above all, she's adept at skewering a moment in such a way as to suggest other moments, lives unfolding away from us, invariably, here, towards something really very gruesome.
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