DIS MEM BER by Joyce Carol Oates

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Reviewed by Karen Langley

DIS MEM BER by Joyce Carol Oates

American author Joyce Carol Oates is an astonishingly prolific writer: since the publication of her first book in 1963, she’s produced over 40 novels as well as short stories, poetry and non-fiction works. Born in New York in 1938, Oates’ long and illustrious career has seen her producing works known for their dark themes, ranging from poverty, abuse and class issues through the vagaries of childhood and adolescence as well as the supernatural.

Her most famous book is perhaps the novella “Black Water” which fictionalises the Chappaquiddick incident, when a young woman was drowned in the crashed car of American Senator Ted Kennedy. She even takes on the cultural icon that is Marilyn Monroe in a fictionalised biography of the actress entitled “Blonde”. Oates is known for focusing on the unsettling and the stories in this exemplary and rather chilling collection are no exception. “DIS MEM BER” contains seven works, and each one leaves the reader very unnerved…

So the opening, title story is narrated by a teenage girl who is rather foolishly attracted to a bad boy cousin, with unfortunate consequences; another focuses on a widow unable to make the break from her old home, gradually discovering that her husband had secrets of which she was not aware. Sibling rivalry features in two of the tales, and family relationships are fragile and volatile, particularly in “The Situations” which contains three very unnerving vignettes and a domineering father. “The Drowned Girl” is a very bleak piece focussing on a student who becomes obsessed with a murdered fellow-student ; as the living girl struggles with her own demons and issues, the dead one seems to haunt her, drawing her closer to a terrible fate.

“Great Blue Heron” is a substantial piece, again featuring a widow who is vulnerable; harassed by rapacious relatives, a predatory heron may be the solution to some of her problems. And the last entry is a delicious, macabrely funny tale of what happens when a plane journey you were taking turns out to be not at all what you expected… As some rather unusual safety information is dispensed, it gradually becomes clear that the ‘holiday’ trip is going to be anything but fun!

“DIS MEM BER” is a collection that shows just what a talented writer Oates is. In most of the stories we are put right inside the head of the protagonist, and it’s not always a pleasant place to be. These unsettling narratives are tales of murder and cruelty, sometimes visceral; the stories are very dark, but often more by implication than by always spelling things out, and that makes them even more effective.

“Such an atrocity is like a shadow, or an eclipse. You “see” it with your eyes but you cannot comprehend its meaning. Nor can others explain when it is so ugly.”

And Oates displays some remarkably skilful storytelling, using spare, effective prose to conjure a claustrophobic, frightening atmosphere. Her staccato phrasing has a hypnotic effect and she cleverly offers limited background information about her characters and situations. With often  just the use of comments and allusions dropped into the narrative, Oates builds up a picture and tells the reader just about enough for them to grasp a person or theme – although some of the stories have tantalisingly elusive elements. This is particularly effective in the story “The Crawl Space”, where the relationship between a widow and her late husband is gradually revealed and the reader, as outsider, can see that it was not a healthy one.

She’s capable also of some stunning imagery, particularly prevalent in the story “Great Blue Heron”; here, the descriptions of the natural world, and specifically the birdlife, are vivid and visual, and I’m keen to read one of Oates’ novels to see if this aspect of her writing expands in the longer format.

As for Oates’ characters, these are often the world’s disaffected outsiders and its misfits; the plain younger sister, the damaged husband who controls his wife’s life, keeping unnamed secrets from her; the drifters and the oddballs, people who really shouldn’t be trusted with your children (and yet for some reason are). It’s notable that many of the stories have young protagonists, characters who should be nurtured and protected but instead are vulnerable and victims. If this is a running theme in Oates’ work (and it does seem to be, from what I’ve read by and about her) it seems she may have a sympathy for the underdog – and in some of the stories the latter do get to strike back.

Joyce Carol Oates’ writing is certainly not for the squeamish or nervous; but if you like to be unsettled, and if your taste runs to the grim rather than the agreeable, then this collection will be the perfect read for you!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks truth is definitely stranger than some fiction, but not always…

Joyce Carol Oates, DIS MEM BER (Head of Zeus, 2017). 9781786693976, 237pp, hardback.

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