Book Review: Lovely, Dark, Deep: Stories by Joyce Carol Oates

All of the stories in this book are dark; some are deep; only a few are lovely.  At first I thought the title was an original fabrication referring to the stories themselves, but in fact it is culled from the line in the Robert Frost poem “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening” that says “The woods are lovely, dark and deep…”  One of the stories, in fact, concerns a fictitious interview with Robert Frost, in which the poet is presented as an egocentric scoundrel.  I almost never made it to that one, though.

It started like this…  I like to alternate reading fiction and nonfiction, and I was coming to the end of a lengthy biography and cast about for a piece of fiction to read.  It had to be something I could obtain at the library, as I am in straitened financial times.  I decided to peruse recent awards lists, and found this book, a finalist for the most recent Pulitzer Prize.  Okay, why not?  The last collection of short stories by Oates I had read, “Wild Nights,” had been entertaining.

The book is divided into four sections, with a few stories in each section, and the fourth composed of a single long novella.  I started reading, and found the first several stories to be mediocre.  Worse, they were depressing.  Not just depressing; they screamed out angst and despair, one after the other.  I thought, what the hell?  To be honest, I couldn’t understand how stories of that quality could be nominated for a prestigious prize like the Pulitzer.  Well, don’t get me started on the politicking that goes on with awards nominations of all sorts; I don’t want to get into or have anything to do with it.  But it did lower the Pulitzer several notches in my estimation.  I have been going through a lot of rough times myself recently:  lonely, poor, frustrated professionally.  I didn’t need to read literature that would only bum me out further.  I could sometimes hear Neil Young playing “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” in my head.

Anyway, loathe as I am to abandon a book in the middle, I almost tossed this one at the end of part two.  One reason is that I had borrowed a very interesting-looking nonfiction book from the library that I was anxious to start.

Something gave me pause, and I am glad I continued – because the last two sections of the book are by far the best.  In the third section Oates indulges in some fantasies, ghost stories.  The writing is more tight and controlled, and my interest level rose.  She seemed to be going somewhere, saying something, and although the themes were still dark, at least she was not just screaming in frustration.

The gem of the collection, though, is the last novella, “Patricide.”  It is the story of a Nobel Prize winning author, told from the viewpoint of his doting middle-aged daughter.  He’s a brilliant writer but also a frantic womanizer.  He has married and divorced four wives, and as the story begins has just met a woman young enough to be his granddaughter who becomes his newest fiancé.  Oates brilliantly depicts the complex relationships between the author, his new young love, and his protective daughter, and weaves in fascinating background about the author’s literary career and past wives.

In my opinion, this book would have been much stronger if only the stories in the last two sections were included.  If that had been the case, I would have given it high praise.  As it is, I acknowledge that in virtually every short story collection some stories are stronger than others.  But it was a grave editing error to put so many inferior and frustratingly negative stories in the front of the book and the finest stories in the back.  Perhaps if the stories had been more skillfully arranged, interspersing the fantasies with the tragedies, I would have been able to handle the bitter, despairing ones better.

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