Dear Dr. K --,
It’s been a long time, hasn’t it! Twenty-three years, nine months, and eleven days.
A writer at the height of her powers, Joyce Carol Oates takes a shiver of an incident by the scruff of its neck, and dazzles. The stories open abruptly. Immediately the reader is immersed in a disconcerting situation; here, in the title story of her collection of tales of mystery and suspense Give Me Your Heart, it is a stalker’s obsession that began in love. Narrative voices are desperate, unhinged, terrified, unravelling. The emotions are so raw it’s like reading with the unsettling sense that someone is creeping up behind you.
In The First Husband, Leonard - the second husband, whose heart “kicked in his chest” in the presence of his enemy - finds photographs his wife has kept of herself with her first husband. In his obsession, Leonard sees these simple Polaroids of another time and place as ‘exotic and treacherous’.
Of all the ignoble emotions, jealousy had to be the worst! And envy.
And yet: he took the photos closer to the window, where a faint November sun glowered behind banks of clouds above the Hudson River, seeing how the table at which the young couple sat was crowded with glasses, a bottle of (red, dark) wine that appeared to be newly depleted, napkins crumpled into dirtied plates like discarded clothing.
With just a few devastating sentences, Oates manages to hand us the old photo, along with an uncomfortable insight into Leonard’s self-torture. An innocent bottle of wine becomes horribly threatening (red, dark), dirtied plates take on an unpleasant connotation, until suddenly he is at the point of imagining the discarded clothing of his wife and her former husband. The entirely self-inflicted knock to Leonard’s self-esteem sees the story play out in shocking, mind-lost brutality.
Unsettling in another way, Smother show us an estranged mother and daughter. A long-buried and nightmarish childhood memory begins to stir, shredding the daughter’s fragile sense of self. But who is to blame? And who will pay the price as the feeling of menace grows, and which way will the truth fall?
Amnesia is a desert of fine white sun-glaring sand to the horizon. Amnesia isn’t oblivion. (…) Amnesia is almost-remembering. Amnesia is the torment of almost-remembering. Amnesia is the dream from which you have only just awakened, hovering out of reach below the surface of bright rippling water.
In the space of a few lines we go from a parched desert to bright rippling water. If the story weren’t disconcerting enough, the sinewy prose whips one way and then another. In the hands of a less accomplished writer, this might be ham-fisted execution, but with Oates, it’s sheer brilliance.
The ten stories of Give Me Your Heart are both intimate and chilling, unpredictable as any supernatural universe.
Throughout her long and distinguished academic career, Joyce Carol Oates has been nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and at certain times published books in a variety of genres including Gothic and suspense novels at the rate of two or three a year.
Asked how she managed to write so much – so brilliantly – she replied that she kept regular hours, did nothing exotic, and felt no need, even, to organize her time. "I am not conscious of working especially hard, or of 'working' at all. Writing and teaching have always been, for me, so richly rewarding that I don't think of them as work in the usual sense of the word."
And in that, I think, she is giving us the secret of life – and for a writer, or anyone who is creative, a grounded life that lets the imagination fly.