How Fiction Works: On Joyce Carol Oates

“How ingenious, Anton! Did you carve it yourself?”

This was the sort of inane question you asked Anton Kruppev. For you had to say something to alleviate the tension of the man’s aggressive-doggy eagerness to please, to impress, to make you laugh. Hadley recalled the first time Anton had come by to see her, which had been the previous week—the strained and protracted conversation between them when, after Hadley had served him coffee and little sandwiches on multigrain bread, Anton hadn’t seemed to know how to depart; his lurching over her, his spasm of a handshake, and his clumsy wet kiss on her cheek which had seemed to sting her, and to thrill her, like the brush of a bat’s wings.

“Yes, Ma’am. You think—you will buy?”

“That depends, Anton. How much . . . ”

“For you, Ma’am, no charge!”

This forced joke, how long would it be kept up? Hadley wondered in exasperation. In middle school, boys like Anton Kruppev were snubbed—Ha ha, very funny!—but once you were an adult how could you discourage such humor without being rude? Hadley was thirty-nine. Anton couldn’t have been more than twenty-nine. He’d been born in what was now called Bosnia and Herzegovina, had lost his parents, and was brought to the United States by a surviving grandparent. He’d gone to American schools, including M.I.T., and yet in all those years had not become convincingly American.

Trying too hard, Hadley thought. The sign of the foreign-born.

Ah yes, the foreign-born. In the latest issue of the New Yorker Joyce Carol Oates, perhaps the most prolific writer of our time, maybe ever, sets a story in the town she lives in, the town of Princeton, which of course is that which surrounds Princeton University where Oates teaches. It’s a very pleasing oasis with canals and wide streets, much brick, several very good restaurants, a great record shop, coffee shop and one of my favorite book stores (before it too closed down a year or two ago, sigh). It’s a town filled with many well meaning liberalish people one might argue are largely unaware of the privilege they enjoy. Wealthy parental units descend from afar to take their children out to dinner at one of the several excellent restaurants. It’s one version of the best of New Jersey, or one of the best versions, in any case. Many tales are set here, including at least part of Richard Ford’s trilogy of novels, which also prods a little–just a little–at this elite world.

I say these folks are completely unaware of their privilege but that isn’t quite true. Like most of people living in relative middle-class, or upper middle-class comfort, they know something of it, but that something is a mysterious, mercurial knowing that makes itself evident in strange ways. These strange ways, these faint roars or shimmers, are what Oates is on about in her recent story, “Pumpkin Head.”

Oates’ story details one such tiny clash. One Anton Kruppev, causes some stress in the lives of those he interacts with, some effort on their part to “alleviate the tension of the man’s aggressive-doggy eagerness to please, to impress, to make you laugh.” The levels of anxiety, as is often the case with Oates, are quite palpable and escalate. This is the writer who brought us such classics as Where are you going, where have you been?, one of the creepiest short stories of all time. There is something gothic about Oates, someting strangely regal, angular and quietly disturbing that translates into all of her writing. Frail as a hummingbird bone she somehow manages, in her part Stephen King, part Flannery O’Connor mode, to get under even the most taught, thick, skin.

“Pumpkin Head” is no exception, though it’s probably not a classic Oates story. The danger is over quickly and there are no bodies, nor much psychological terror to sweep up. On the scale of creepiness it’s downright friendly. We follow our narrator, Hadley, as she navigates the difficulties that arise when the small ritual of exchange she has with one Anton Kruppev is altered. Very quickly he moves from being a manageable nuisance to a downright nuisance, to a threat. This as he struggles to emerge from the restrained conversations that he too is confined by. He literally tries to carve out a place, to impress upon his host some degree of his person, to make himself seen.

What I remember of this story after putting it down is really what I remember of all Oates’ stories–the feeling. So often one gets a sense of being trapped in her work, as you do here. Hadley is trapped by her angry (sort of) guest, trapped by her own ideas of her life, trapped by her life. In other stories I remember, not the narrative but similar feelings: trapped down by a river, trapped in a car, trapped on a cruise. You have to read her quickly so that you don’t sink into it, or let her sink too deeply into you, because once she gets in there the images, and the characters and the feelings linger and there is–when she gets it right–no escaping them.

The story also put me in mind of Alice Munro’s recent story, “Free Radicals,” which I wrote about here. In fact, now that I think of it, yes, it’s strikingly similar. A widow alone in her house, wondering how to get along, the visit, someone forcing themselves into the widow’s life, and then at the widow more violently. Munro’s felt like a revision of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” a surprising turn for Munro. I’m not sure I could say the same of Oates,’ though now that I’ve noticed the similarity lets have a look at the two.

Here is the opening of Oates’

In late March, there’d been a sleet storm throughout north-central New Jersey. Her husband had died several days before. There was no connection, she knew. But since that time she’d begun to notice at twilight a curious glistening to the air. Often, she found herself in the doorway of her house, or outside, not remembering how she’d got there. For long minutes, she would stare as the colors faded and a glassy light emerged from the sky and from the Scotch pines surrounding the house. It did not seem to her a natural light, and in weak moments she thought, This is the crossing-over time. She watched, not knowing what she might be seeing. She felt aroused, vigilant. She felt apprehension. She wondered if the strange glistening to the air had always been there but in her previous, protected life she hadn’t noticed it.

And here is the opening of Munro’s:

At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed, not too lonely, not eating too little or drinking too much. (She had been such a diligent wine drinker that many forgot that she was now forbidden to drink at all.) She held them off, without sounding nobly grief-stricken or unnaturally cheerful or absent-minded or confused. She said that she didn’t need groceries; she was working through what she had on hand. She had enough of her prescription pills and enough stamps for her thank-you notes.

So both women are in a state of “crossing over” time. One, Munro’s character, a tad more stoic than the other. And here are the endings, first Munro:

She was wakened by a knock on her still unlocked door. It was a policeman, not the one from the village but one of the provincial traffic police. He asked if she knew where her car was.
She looked at the patch of gravel where it had been parked.
“It’s gone,” she said. “It was over there.”
“You didn’t know it was stolen? When did you last look out and see it?”
“It must have been last night.”
“The keys were left in it?”
“I suppose they must have been.”
“I have to tell you it’s been in a bad accident. A one-car accident just this side of Wallenstein. The driver rolled it down into the culvert and totalled it. And that’s not all. He’s wanted for a triple murder. That’s the latest we heard, anyway. Murder in Mitchellston. You were lucky you didn’t run into him.”
“Was he hurt?”
“Killed. Instantly. Serves him right.”
There followed a kindly stern lecture. Leaving keys in the car. Woman living alone. These days you never know.
Never know.

And then Oates:

She managed to stand. She was dazed, sobbing. She leaned against a chair in the hall, touching the walls, then stumbled to the open doorway and stood, staring outside. The front walk was dimly illuminated by the moon overhead. There was a meagre light, a near-to-fading light. She saw that the pumpkin head had fallen from the step, or had been kicked. It lay shattered on its side. She could see that the innards had been scooped out, but negligently, so that seeds remained, bits of pumpkin gristle. She stepped outside. She wiped at her mouth, which was still bleeding. She would run back into the house and dial 911. She would report an assault. She would summon help. For she required help, badly; she knew that Anton Kruppev would return. Certainly he would return. On the front walk, she stood gazing toward the road—what she could see of the road in the darkness. There were headlights there. An unmoving vehicle. It was very dark, a winter dark had come upon them. She called out, “Hello? Hello? Who is it?” Headlights on the roadway, where his vehicle was parked.

Not the same story, nor the same writers, but a similar journey. Both women having to talk their way out of a bad situation. It doesn’t work for the old woman in O’Connor’s story, who is shot and finds or does not find redemption in that moment–the jury is still out on that. But it does for both Oates’ and Munro’s characters. Widows who will go on, a little dazed, but righted finally, slightly scarred by the brush with the “other” in varying degrees of danger.

-Sina Queyras

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