Joyce Carol Oates
Reading Joyce Carol Oates is the exact opposite of skimming a Hallmark greetings card: In her world, everyone is doomed, damned, tortured and will almost certainly not get well soon. True to form, Sourland – the author’s latest collection of stories – is a study of the perils of power, often told from the perspective of the powerless.
Oates’s gloomy prose is razor-sharp to the point of being transportive and vivid in its honesty and brutality. At times it feels as though you’re reading a series of expertly written obituaries. In other instances, Oates strays from the script: in one story, for example, she tries on the vernacular of a 23-year-old stuck in post-college limbo.
With the story told in broken and slashing sentences, the protagonist’s voice sounds surprisingly genuine coming from a septuagenarian writer. Oates even flirts with heady science fiction, using the meeting between the bored posh wife of a college professor and a time-travelling man (who is either mad or actually forecasting some rather foreboding news about mankind’s futile future) to craft a rich metaphor for the perils of Western consumption.
Occasionally, the persistent heaviness of Oates’s writing becomes a little too much to bear. With her pen as mighty as all the swords she lobs at her protagonists, her publisher might do well to offer a couple of sample packets of antidepressants with every purchase of Sourland.
Luckily, there’s enough of Oates’s usual linguistic mastery on display in this collection to diffuse the thematic gore and make this yet another solid entry into her already overstocked catalogue.