Nihilist Spasms

The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates (collected 2008): As prolific as a pulp writer, Oates has been lauded again and again for the quality of her prose. She is a fine writer, but don’t go to her work to feel good. Or even to experience catharsis. There aren’t any conventional happy endings here in these dozen or so stories and novellas.

The title novella deals with family secrets and long-standing conflicts, as do most of the other stories — the heart in conflict with both itself and other hearts. There’s suspense here, though it’s of a peculiar sort, as one generally waits to see what horrors will unfold by the end of a story. Oates is a witty writer, but I wouldn’t call her funny. Frankly, her fiction is mostly humourless. “The Twins: A Mystery” has wit to spare but unlike, say, Kafka or Thomas Ligotti, Oates doesn’t generate absurdity that can be laughed at despite its attendant horrors.

The grimness can wear a bit. A lot, sometimes. One story, told from the POV of a serial killer, is a small gem of characterization that nonetheless casts no light — human cruelty has been so well-documented in fiction and fact that the story seems to have been rendered superfluous by the weight of its antecedents. It’s a perfectly rendered, perfectly hollow bit of nihilism.

Other stories let enough light in to succeed, though. “Feral”, ostensibly fantasy, devastates on a number of levels with its tale of a child gone horribly wrong. “The Man Who Fought Roland LaStarza” allows Oates to indulge her love of boxing within the context of a family drama, though the final revelation of the story doesn’t shock. The aforementioned “The Twins: A Mystery” strives mightily for some sort of absurdist effect, but it just sorta sits there — the shock ending in this case undone by the absurdity of the protagonists. Three stories are essentially static depictions of the thoughts of serial killers and/or child murderers: more gestural than narrative, and even one is almost too many.

Overall, Oates is fine writer, and one well worth reading. One’s reaction to her will depend on one’s tolerance for a universe without much light, and a writer who can’t be light without the effort showing. More light! Recommended.

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