“It was apparent that this man – with his air of having somewhere to get to, his intelligent, masculine worry – thought she was peculiar. Perhaps insane? She wanted to explain to him with a laugh that she was really not insane, though external evidence seemed to indicate that she was not quite normal. She would have liked to show him her diploma, her Master’s Degree in Art Education; the few love letters a young man had once sent her; the snapshots of her and a girl friend in Maine, one happy summer a long time ago. These were proofs of her being normal, or at least of her having been normal, in those years before she gave up and returned home. But she had returned home. She had given up her job in New York, her friends, her own apartment, she had given up wearing lipstick because it annoyed her father, she had even given up thinking, except on long hot summer afternoons. So perhaps he was right in staring at her that way?”
Joyce Carol Oates is one of those authors whose name you just know. She is an absolute legend in the literary world whose work is taught as curriculum, whose name is included with some of the greatest writers of the second half of the 20th century—a prolific novelist, short story writer, memoirist, activist, and even Twitter savant. She’s one of those authors whose bibliography has its own Wikipedia page. “Read Your Oates” has become a familiar cliché.
Surprisingly, I’ve never read Oates. I managed to go through high school, graduated with an English degree with a heavy emphasis on American literature from a liberal arts university, complete a reading project based on Pulitzer Prize winners, and make it into my thirties without ever reading any of her works. Nary a short story. I wasn’t even following her on Twitter. I’ve also wanted to—but when an author’s career spans 50+ years and there are just so many works to choose from, it’s difficult to pick an entry point.
After I completed the Pulitzer Project, I had become so accustomed to reading from a checklist that I didn’t know what books to pick up next; so I returned to the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. There were several years that the Pulitzer committee didn’t award the Prize to any book and, from the very beginning of it, I knew that upon completing the Pulitzer Project I wanted to go back and research the books that were considered for the Prize in those years. Thanks to Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction I’ve been able to track down just about all of those books and have been reading them, then writing reviews as “appendices” on this blog.
Joyce Carol Oates’s collection of short stories, The Wheel of Love and Other Stories, was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1971 (along with Eudora Welty’s Losing Battles and Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet). According to the aforementioned Chronicle, the board leaned toward awarding the Prize to Welty just because of her literary legacy but, in the end, opted to abstain from award anyone.
1971 wasn’t the only year Joyce Carol Oates was a finalist for the Prize, but this year is an especially difficult pill to swallow; not just because this collection of short stories was highly acclaimed, but because the Board rathered to recognize nobody instead of it. It really seems like the Pulitzer board had something against Oates—another interesting anecdote about her experience with the Pulitzer Prize is she had just won the 1970 National Book Award for her novel Them. This novel was the Pulitzer jury’s unanimous choice for the 1970 prize, but nonetheless did not receive the award.
Here’s what I’ll say for this collection… I don’t think these stories are completely brilliant, but all of them are very, very good bordering on greatness. Oates is a tremendous writer—this is well-known, and she is massively respected for her contributions to literature. But I don’t think she gets the credit she deserves for being a wildly daring, innovative writer—especially in these early stories, some of the earliest of her career. Especially for the time period they were written, many of these stories really push the envelope. These are the stories of a writer who is fully engaged and in her prime.
I must admit that it took me a bit longer than I would have liked to get through the collection. Every single one of them is so heavy, so drenched with sorrow that I needed time to recover after every story. Some of them are deeply unsettling, some play with form and style and feel very experimental for the time. And they all are very much of their time: racial integration, counterculture in conflict with suburbia, trapped housewives, the decline of Detroit (where she was living at the time of publication), America at a cultural crossroads. It is a thick book with difficult truths about us all, and it is impossible not to find the ugliest, most despicable version of yourself within its pages.
The thematic thread that ties all of the stories together as a collection is that of the relationships between men and women; the interchange of love and insanity—where the two cross paths or meet each other head on; the pathology of love, lust, and physical/emotional/mental abuse; the nature of love in a degenerate society; the complex relationships between fathers and daughters; the meaning of love in all its sexual, platonic, romantic denominations. Stories about how dysfunction and abuse in relationships with parents poisons future romantic relationships; adultery; predation of young women by older men; women driven to insanity railing against the patriarchy; women throwing themselves into the arms of sadistic men just to escape; suicide; abortion; murder; rape. So much darkness, so much violence, so much sorrow.
And Oates pulls no punches—nobody is safe from her microscope. The calm quiet of Suburbia and the free spirit are equally torn apart. One reviewer on Goodreads sums it up well: “Characters are paralyzed in adulterous hell or transfixed in moments of despair over a life that stretches predictably ahead. On the other side, those who choose the bohemian way fare no better. They are flying dangerously free, unmoored and despised.”
One of her earliest and most famous stories, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, is included in this collection and it is a perfect summary of all the other stories herein. It’s an absolutely chilling story, horrifying in its simplicity; what Oates wrote between the lines more terrifying than what she plainly states. Arnold Friend—sexual predator, murderer—is one of literature’s most sadistic villains.
Other highlights include: “Unmailed, Unwritten Letters”, “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again”, “Four Summers”, and “In the Region of Ice.”
I can’t tell you why the Pulitzer Prize wasn’t awarded to The Wheel of Love and Other Stories. I think it’s a real shame that it wasn’t—it was definitely more worthy than a great many of the works that have won in its 100+ years. I’m also not sure if this is a perfect introduction to Oates’s work, as I’ve never read anything else by her…
But what I can tell you is that this is a tremendous collection that should not be read straight-through. Read a story or two, put the book down, read something else, then come back to it. This book is a lot to absorb and it will absolutely tamper with your mental and emotional wellbeing if you allow yourself to get invested in it (which you absolutely should do). Oates creates a very realistic world that is very easy to get lost in, and to lose yourself in.