Book Review: Give Me Your Heart: Dark, Disturbed, Maddening

– From Archived Site –
I went on a Disney cruise to the Eastern Caribbean last week.  It was fun and jam-packed with magical activities and Disney characters.  My 7 year old had a blast.  But I’m not really interested in writing about that, this isn’t a travel blog after all.  Maybe it was because I found myself immersed in so much G-rated goodness that I suddenly had a craving for the dark and disturbed.  Luckily on my iPad I had a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates called Give me Your Heart.  I’ve had this collection on my iPad forever and I think I must have needed to embrace the macarbe to escape the constant spectacle of manufactured wonder and awe on board.

The tone of all the stories is bleak, unhappy, full of disturbed (albeit interesting) individuals.  Funny that I should have the urge to revisit this book while on a cruise with Mickey and the gang.  I probably could write an entire essay on what that means for my psychology.  But why probe to deep? Arguably, it could awaken some happily sleeping monsters.  Wow!  Who knew that Disney was capable of dredging up such horror?  I prefer to think of this surprising craving as something of a yin and yang.  I needed the darkness to bring into balance the overwhelming light of Disney and his multitude of “dreams upon a star”.  One can only take so much happiness, yes?

Back to the book review.  Let’s start with the good – Joyce Carol Oates is a very evocative writer who creates believable characters and situations.  I love how she really gets into the mindset of her protagonists, and how original they are both in tone and setting but sharing the common thread of underlying pathology.  The level and depth of the depravity differs in each character but it is a constant presence throughout.  There are no happy endings.  There may have been (some) happy beginnings but through the course of the narrative things unravel.  You can see this happening in the stories.  At times its subtle, Oates doesn’t beat  you over the head with going from Point A to Point B but the plot points are all there.  What I found perhaps the most maddening, however, is just as you’ve become fully engrossed in the tale it ends usually quite abruptly and often ambiguously.  I found myself having to go back and re-read most of the stories for clues as to what Oates intended.  For the most part, enough breadcrumbs were left behind to interpret the ending but it is by no means conclusive.  I suspect two people could walk away with very different views on what actually transpired.  Some of this is intentional.  At least two stories had unreliable narrators.  In others, however, Oates uses language that is intentionally misleading.  I’m all for subtly but to intentionally try and confuse your reader?  Maddening.  Maybe Oates simply wants her readers to work hard to understand her stories, she is not what I would call light reading.

I found myself reminded of one of her other (and perhaps most famous) short stories,
Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.  I read this story years ago – in high school English class – and remember being similarly perplexed by the end.  I guess what I’m saying is while Oates convincingly draws you into another world, I pretty much hate how these stories end.  That could be just a quirk particular to me but I’d say proceed with caution – or read with a notebook at the ready – when diving into a Joyce Carol Oates short story.  They are not for the faint of heart, in more ways than one.

PS: I loved Joyce Carol Oates novels The Falls, Blonde, and We Were the Mulvaneys so my hesitancy to recommend refers to her short stories.

PPS: I haven’t been blogging because I’ve been working on my book.  Only two chapters to go to the end!

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