Recent Reads: DIS MEM BER by Joyce Carol Oates

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DIS MEM BER and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates
Head of Zeus, 2018, 238 pgs.

A widow who fantasises of being as free and merciless as the heron that lives by her home. A young girl’s distant relative showers her with affection and presents her with unspeakable horrors. An unsolved mysterious death haunts a university student obsessed with the case. Fleeting images of fathers with violent moods and tendencies. A less-than hospitable flight service announcement. A teenage romance filled with jealousy, rivalry, and bullets. A woman drawn to her old home is surprised to find the new inhabitants have found remnants of her old life hidden away in an alcove.

DIS MEM BER is a collection of six recent short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, which includes: the titular short story DIS MEM BER’ (2016), ‘The Crawl Space’ (2016), ‘Heartbreak’ (2015), ‘The Drowned Girl’ (2016), ‘The Situations’ (2016), ‘Great Blue Heron’ (2017), and ‘Welcome to Friendly Skies!’ (2017). Each one has a strong undercurrent of tension and threat, giving them an often nauseous, surreal feel of something awful about to happen.

The first short story ‘DIS MEM BER’ is certainly one of the strongest. The story is introduced as a sort of reminiscence, or part of an interview, wherein the protagonist, and narrator, who was a teenager when the events of the story took place, details the unusual activities she undertook alongside a relative of hers, Rowan Billiet. Billiet is introduced as a proud owner of a “sky-blue Chevy,” being handsome, young, enigmatic, and incredibly fond of his ‘niece’ (though the narrator, Jill, or “Jill-y” as he ‘affectionately’ names her, is actually unrelated). Billiet often convinces Jill to come with him out in the car, and she admits how much she revels in his attention, though that attention is often intense and predatory. One day, Billiet, who practically abducts Jill (she being uncertain about absconding from home without telling her family), takes her to a bridge outside of town to show her something. That something is left powerfully and disturbingly vague: we know it is something hideous, perhaps gory-looking, and certainly something dead. Whether animal or human it is left to the reader’s imagination. As Billiet convinces Jill to take some pictures of him posing next to it, and gleefully describes to her the exact state of the remains, Billiet becomes a menacing and disturbing presence, transforming her girlish crush into something more dangerous. One particularly horrible abuse scene is told through a similarly detached and patchy narration – as if the narrator herself would much rather not go into details, or simply can’t. The title itself references the way that ‘dismember’ as a word is not too dissimilar in structure to ‘remember’ – almost acting as a negative form of the word. The darkness inherent in this story amps up as Jill, despite her ageing over time and losing some of Billiet’s creepy interest, is recruited by him to help him pick up girls. As time goes by, the narrator’s increasing awareness that something was terribly wrong with her ‘uncle’ leads to a conclusion of acceptance of oneself and the terrible things in one’s past, yet there is a strong sense of dissatisfaction and fond remembrances despite all that happened. Her girlish adoration becomes tainted and mixed up with her feelings of terror and apprehension.

The following, ‘The Crawl Space,’ is considerably shorter, and describes the day to day of a grieving widow, whose deceased husband haunts her thoughts. She finds herself drawn to their old home constantly, and feels ashamed that she is always peering at it from the road, desperate to walk inside, yet fearful of upsetting the current residents. Memories regarding her intelligent, if mysterious and reclusive, husband plague her, such as recalling his anger when he discovered she was pregnant some years before. He claimed his family possess a mutation, or some kind of malady, either in personality or health (it is unclear), and demands they never have a child, and that she must get rid of it. This story is filled with unclear images, such as those about the pregnancy, taken from the memories of a grief-addled woman. She is drawn back to the house again and again, but instead of it bringing her relief or solace, she is frightened. She is especially taken aback when the current new owners invite her in, telling her that construction workers discovered in an alcove, or ‘crawl space,’ a collection of boxes which are sealed shut with tape. When she climbs into the alcove, reluctantly, she imagines that inside the boxes may be remains of children long passed, or perhaps old antiques, or simply his work papers. The story remains ambiguous all the way through: what happened to her pregnancy? Was a child’s body ever kept, wasting away in one of the boxes? Is the house transformative and a threatening presence itself? Or is this all a panicked imagining by a woman torn apart by grief, haunted still by her reclusive husband, a man both beloved and feared. Unlike ‘DIS MEM BER,’ this short story is one of the more surreal, especially due to this ambiguity.

‘Heartbreak’ is a return to a crime thriller narrative, of a sort. The story starts with an admission that something awful is going to occur. A step-father’s gun. A sister and a cousin laughing out in the woods. And vicious self-hatred. Stephanie, or Steff/Steffi as she hates to be called, is the narrator and main protagonist. She is a teenage girl and she has a crush on her step-cousin, a young man newly-introduced to the girls: Hunt Lesinger. Caitlin, her older sister, is also enthralled by the new boy, who is a keen hunter, camper, and hiker. He captures their teenage hearts and seems to have a soft spot even for Stephanie, who is often the butt of the family’s jokes, or criticisms. Quiet and sullen, Stephanie is very happy to receive some more positive attention, but this is ruined somewhat by Caitilin and Hunt’s getting closer. Hunt, who likes to show off his hunting rifle, is harmless, if a little clueless, for the most part, and Caitlin is the bratty sister, characters not uncommon in most YA novels, but Stephanie, though our protagonist, is the growing force of darkness here. Her blurred view of herself in the mirror, her quiet hatred, and her desperation to be included, are not uncommon in the moody teen trope, but this ends disastrously when she decides to show Hunter her own gun – her step-father’s pistol. A story of teen drama that becomes increasingly fraught with tension – at times painfully relatable to anyone who has acted as third-wheel or felt left out by their friends – though it becomes so much more sinister in the closing pages. A seed of sadness runs throughout, as accidents blur into intentions.

‘The Drowned Girl’ blends the more surreal of the stories with the more crime/thriller themed with this story, which is almost certainly based on the real life case of Elisa Lam (a mysterious death, the details of which are very much the same as those seen in this story). The narrator here is a student, Alida, who is obsessed with the case of Miri Klim, a student who was found dead in a water tank on the roof of a student housing complex.  How she got into the tank is unknown. Who killed her, or if it was suicide, is never conclusively proven. All that is known is that the water was effected by her body’s decomposition, leading to the grisly discovery. Alida’s obsession with Klim runs from morbid curiosity to a trance-like need to know more, and she is always aware of odd parallels between her and the dead woman. Alida stares at water as it streams from the tap, she walks past the housing complex every day and believes she can almost see Klim looking back, and she is struggling to cope in many different aspects of her life as odd events and circumstances crop up. Her grades are slipping, she is paranoid, and a surprise diagnosis late in the story brings up more questions. A highly unreliable narrator, she finds herself constantly cutting in and out of scenes, describing a disembodied voice, a siren’s call, for her to find out what happened to Klim, leaving the reader unsure of what is real and what is not. The surreal nature of the story is heightened by people’s inability to remember the victim, and their own distrust of Alida, as they see in her something she doesn’t see, and neither can we. The story ends strangely and abruptly, and the unanswered questions about the narrator herself, and what she hasn’t told us, ends up more compelling than what happened to Klim.

‘The Situations’ is the more difficult of the stories to analyse – short and bitter, it is split into three sections: the first concerns a father and his four(?) children, out for a drive. A nest of kittens is spotted by the young children and they beg to take the kittens home with them. When the mild-mannered (seeming…) father believes he smells that the kittens have ‘made a mess’ in his car, he abruptly grabs all of the felines, and throws them off of a bridge, much to the horror and, understandable, grief of his young children. His chiding moral? “Because I am Daddy, who decides how things end.” This is followed by a strange story of a young man who leaves his island home to go to the Mainland, a place covered in feral cats that hiss and spit at him. He comes across a young girl and after stealing reluctant kisses from her, she bites him hard on the thumb. He returns home, his thumb horribly infected and bleeding heavily, and when it heals it leaves a scar which he is drawn to emotionally, though he forgets why over time. This is then followed by a return to the children and their bizarre “Daddy” who runs over an animal, despite their protestations and demands for him to stop and help it. Instead, he gets them out of the car, cruelly beats them, and smokes his cigarettes, whilst his children cower in terror. When one of the girls, his new favourite (as apparently one child in the first section was the favourite, but this title is given to another sister in this follow-on), asks why he did that, he says cryptically, “Because I am Daddy, whose children must never give up hope.” A surreal story overall, with the middle section almost reading like a strange fable or myth, yet the three sections are all connected with a threatening male presence, and the death, or desecration in some way, of an innocent creature. Youth is predated on or attacked, whilst animals are killed with little care. A bizarre and difficult to read story, both in content and intent, but powerfully memorable. Open to a lot of interpretation…

‘Great Blue Heron’ concerns another widow, this time Claudia, whose deceased husband is terribly missed. In her sprawling home by Aubergine Lake, she watches the birds and takes solace walking amongst the marshes and watching them hatch their young or quarrel. One day, a great blue heron, a gigantic and magnificent bird, appears and she is horrified to watch it eating the eggs and young of the ducks and geese, and as it flies away she is captivated by its huge size and merciless qualities. As the people in her life flock about her, and tell them how sorry they are for her loss, she is plagued by images of the heron and she is constantly watching and waiting for it. Her husband’s brother will not leave her alone, and she is horrified by the cruelties of the children in the neighbourhood – and each time she is threatened by these unwanted intrusions, she images she is a heron, with a blade-like beak, pecking her enemies to death. A strange story filled with melancholy, longing, and wondering, Claudia is a kindly woman, who is glad her husband doesn’t see her suffer as she is now. She wants to be alone, and the heron is an interesting symbol throughout, of revenge, of peace, of independence. Her fantasies are intertwined with the real world however when it seems a heron-like creature has attacked some of those who torment her. Whether she is a criminal, whether its coincidence and caused by the heron she watches, or whether there is some odd magic realism at play here, and she is able to transform, is open to interpretation. A sad story with a background of nostalgia and a desire for something else.

‘Welcome to Friendly Skies!’ is the final in the collection and one of the shortest. More humorous than all the other stories, which tend to have a melancholic and often disturbing tone, ‘Welcome to Friendly Skies!’ has a Welcome to Night Vale humour to it. A flight attendant seems to narrate the whole thing, creating a nightmare flight service. They apathetically warn excess passengers that despite having reserved seats, if their seat is already filled, they need to get into the hold, or into the overhead bins. The over-weight are routinely mocked. Emergency services seem unhelpful and the likelihood of your oxygen mask being stolen by an attendant is suggested to be high. The pilot is an unstable ex-soldier fond of unnerving sayings and slogans. The marshals on-board can’t carry a gun, but they do carry a particularly deadly taser and they have the right to use it on anyone, at any time, especially if you appear even slightly suspicious (the pilot and his co-pilot do carry pistols however). The passengers are told they only have rights to some oxygen, which is a couple of percent lower than average, especially if they’re economy class. The destination is an island of some kind of environmental interest to the passengers – though, this might be a ruse and the actual passengers are about to be taken to something far more experimental and deadly, unless they can fill out a quick CV, or resume, about why they should instead be given an authoritarian role, and not be a guinea pig. Strange, satirical, and bizarre, it’s a different ending, tonally, to the rest of the collection, but still with that undercurrent of violence, death, and disturbing intention.

A fantastic collection overall, my personal favourites are ‘DIS MEM BER,’ ‘The Drowned Girl,’ and ‘Heartbreak’ due to their memorable story-lines and thriller-like intensity. The strongest story for me is ‘DIS MEM BER’ though ‘Great Blue Heron’ and ‘The Situation’ open themselves up to analytical readings far more powerfully. The surreal and disturbing blend so well together here, and this is a fantastic place to start with Oates if you’ve not yet read her other works.




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