Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates isn’t human, so far as I can tell. After all, what human has the time to write as much as she does and still teach Literature at Princeton University? She has written plays, screenplays, poems and essays in addition to her award-winning short stories and novels. Some would refer to her as a bionic writer. She never seems to sleep. And yet, if you were to ask Oates what she thinks about her label of “prolific author”, she will tell you that she really doesn’t write that fast.

And yet, managing a new novel nearly every year for the past eighteen years (including mysteries written under her pseudonyms of Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly) and a new short story collection every three years is a stunning feat, one that few authors can imitate. (For those keeping count, there hasn’t been a year without a new book by Joyce Carol Oates since 1965.)

Each work stands alone, with the exception of her 1967-1971 series of novels, dubbed The Wonderland Quartet.1 Since the early 1990’s, she has begun to write a series of novellas about young women. Her massive, 738 page novel Blonde [2001] was originally intended to be a novella about the life of Norma Jean Baker, also known as Marilyn Monroe.

These novellas are the stories of young woman in dangerous situations and deceptive love-affairs, taking place in an unforgiving and vicious world. I Lock the Door upon Myself [1990], Black Water [1992], First Love [1996] and Rape: A Love Story [2003] are all examples of such books. Beasts [2002] is a continuation of Oates’ Gothic tales.

Set in the mid-1970’s, the novella centers around the story of a young girl, Gillian, and her friends as they try to live their day-to-day lives at Catamount College. The girls slowly fall under the spell of the poetry teacher, Andre Harrow. Andre, who is married to a French woman named Dorcas, seduces several of the girls in turn.

From the beginning, Gillian has an unhealthy, obsessive relationship with Andre and Dorcas. The first time we meet Dorcas, she has been followed through the college campus and into the town post-office by Gillian. Gillian stalks both Dorcas and Andre, though not with any sense of consistency. When she bumps into them, on or off campus, she follows them, displaying an unhealthy curiosity.

Andre has a near-obsessive tendency to quote the works of D. H. Lawrence (both his work and his personal life) as an example to the young poets he teaches. One verse by Lawrence (“Medlars and Sorb-Apples” from Birds, Beasts and Flowers [1923]2) which is repeated during most classes:

“I love you, rotten,

Delicious rottenness

I love to suck you out from your skins

So brown and soft and coming suave,

So morbid…

Sorb-apples, medlars with dead crowns

I say, wonderful are the hellish experiences,

Orphic, delicate

Dionysus of the Underworld

A kiss, and a spasm of farewell, a moment’s orgasm

of rupture,

Then along the damp road alone, till the next

turning.

And there, a new partner, a new parting…

A new intoxication of loneliness, among decaying,

frost-cold leaves.”

This sensual love poem almost sums up the novella. Student after student worships Andre Harrow and Dorcas, only to be left “among decaying, frost-cold leaves” as D. H. Lawrence wrote. The girls give up their livelihood to become close with them, only to descend into an unimaginable hell.

* * *

At the same time as this bizarre love story unfolds, someone has been setting fires around the college. This arsonist strikes again and again, once destroying a part of the college library. One student, Cassie, becomes a suspect in the fires after it becomes known that she had signed up for psychological counseling earlier that year. One girl “vanishes” from the group, beginning a mysterious and tragic withdraw from social life in the style of Emily Dickinson. Another attempts suicide. Our narrator too, exhibits “strange” behaviors. All of these elements are woven into the already chilling narrative with Oates’ brilliant narrative style.

* * *

Oates often uses common themes in her work. Many of the turning points in this novella come from her “grab-bag” of horrors (if you will pardon the expression). Feminism, race, art and politics, art and life, violence and great literature are her common themes, the dots on the line that strings together her life’s work.

Having published at an amazing rate for the last fifty years, one would wonder if the quality of Joyce Carol Oates’ work would decline. The answer is simply: no. Her work has lasted several decades of interpretation and criticism and has brought on many honors, including a National Book Award and several O. Henry Prizes for her short stories. There has also been a long-standing rumor of a Nobel Prize nomination. Though Beasts is one of her recent works, she has published thirty books since it was originally released, with six more in the pipe-line. Every book she writes is an entertaining journey through the dark-side of the American Dream. And after all those years, the work is still enjoyable and fresh. No other writer could successfully create such a brimming tale of Gothic and romantic horror. Oates is the master of her craft.

Endnotes:

1. The Wonderland Quartet consists of A Garden of Earthly Delights [1967], Expensive People [1968], them [1969] and Wonderland [1971].

2. For further reading, The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence is available from Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics.


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