Ok, now for something completely different. We swerve away from the careful, slightly arcane prose of W. Somerset Maugham to the modern, spare, gut-wrenching writing of Joyce Carol Oates.
I have read a lot of her stories over the years. As a matter of fact, I’m working through a massive tome (well, it would be massive if it wasn’t stored as a collection of electrons in my Kindle) of her collected works… spanning more than four decades of her prodigious output.
One of her best is the classic, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been – which I re-read a week ago, read carefully, trying to fully understand the implications and observations of that frightening tale of adolescence and loss of innocence.
Heat is a very short, odd story. On the surface it is a horror story – the tale of the murder of twin girls, little more than children. It is more than this salacious collection of lurid facts, however.
The story is told from the point of view of another girl, a friend of the murdered twins. It is told in a simple, yet disjointed style. At first, it seems like a mannered, but straightforward telling of a horrific incident in the narrator’s youth.
If you pay close attention, however, the narrator begins including details that there is no way she could possibly know about. You can’t help but think, “Was she there? Did she see something? Was she involved in some way?” Of course she wasn’t… the reader knows this – but you can’t help but think.
Then there is the connection with the narrator’s adult life – her passions and destructive behavior. What is the relationship between these passages and the deaths of her twin friends from her childhood? Is she a reliable narrator? Why is she telling us all this?
The final line of the story seems to provide an answer – if not a complete and not a fully understandable one.
Now, if W. Somerset Maugham in his story seemed to hint at a second world, a world of chaos and primitive passions, one that civilized men almost always lack the courage to embrace – here we have Joyce Carol Oates completely tearing the tissue-like barrier between the two completely away – leaving the frightening reality that lies just beyond our everyday thoughts and actions completely exposed. It sits there bleeding and pulsing like a disembodied heart – and she enjoins us to look at it and acknowledge its existence through her fiction.
Or at least I think so.
Behind the icehouse in his car I’d think of Rhea and Rhoda and what happened that day upstairs in Roger Whipple’s room. And the funeral parlor with the twins like dolls laid out and their eyes like dolls’ eyes too that shut when you tilt them back. One night when I wasn’t asleep but wasn’t awake either I saw my parents standing in the doorway of my bedroom watching me and I knew their thoughts, how they were thinking of Rhea and Rhoda and of me their daughter wondering how they could keep me from harm, and there was no clear answer.
—-Joyce Carol Oates, Heat