Lovely Dark Deep

By Joyce Carol Oates

(Ecco, $25.99, 432 pages)

Who is this author?                          

It seems I am always telling you about Joyce Carol Oates’ newest book: she’s published three novels, all to critical acclaim, in the past 10 months alone, and those are just the latest in her more than 100 books in just about every genre: fiction, nonfiction, memoir, criticism, poetry, children’s books – can a JCO cookbook be far behind? I wouldn’t put it past her. This prodigious output has won Oates an equally impressive list of awards, including a National Medal of Humanities, National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, National Book Award and PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. As if she weren’t busy enough, Oates also is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University.

If you are a fan of her work, you can hear her live onstage at a WSHU Public Radio/NPR’s “Join the Conversation” author event at The Study at Yale, 1157 Chapel St., New Haven, on Thursday, Oct. 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10:

What is this book about?

Oates’ new collection of 13 short stories explores the dark side of human relationships: man and woman, boy and grandmother, husband and wife, father and daughter, author and interviewer. Most of the characters are fictional, but Robert Frost, of all people, plays a starring role in the title story, whose “lovely, dark and deep” quotes “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening.” Oates gives us a couple with a strange erotic connection; a teenager made vulnerable by his adoration of his grandmother; a woman who watches her husband obsessively; a doomed pregnancy and the Frost tale, among others.

Why you’ll like it:

I like to joke about Oates’ ability to turn out book after book after book, seemingly without breaking a sweat, but make no mistake: she is a fine writer whose ouput is matched by her talent. Oates has published more than two dozen story collections, and she is particularly skilled at using this form for probing the complexity of human interactions. And she is never afraid, in her lovely writing, to go dark and deep. Some find her stories disturbing, but others prize them for their insights and relevance. If you are not yet familiar with her work, this collection could be your entry point, but beware: if you like this one, you’ll need a lifetime to read the rest of her amazing body of work.

What others are saying:                

“Marvelous. Oates is a giant among us, as prolific as the worst of the writers who produce dreck and turn it into cash, but thoroughly wonderful and important,” says NPR Books.

Publishers Weekly says:  “Oates’s newest collection characteristically mines the depths of the female psyche to find darkness there. In particular, she deals with women who hide medical procedures—including, presciently, abortion—from their loved ones (“Sex With Camel,” “Distance,” “‘Stephanos Is Dead’”) and with women who struggle to assert themselves in relationships with their artistic, self-absorbed fathers (“Things Passed on the Way to Oblivion,” “Patricide”) and with lovers (“Mastiff,” “A Book of Martyrs,” “The Hunter,” “The Disappearing”). Throughout, the lines that define these secrets and hidden desires captivatingly blur and dissolve. “The Jesters,” about aging suburbanites who eavesdrop on their neighbors’ seemingly picture-perfect life as it shatters, conjures both elements, and then ups the ante with a paranormal twist. A pair of longer stories—the title story, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” which is a fictional reimagining of a young poet’s interview with Robert Frost in his twilight years, and “Patricide,” a longer exploration of a stifling father-daughter bond—expand on these themes. As the interloping fiancée of “Patricide” says of her deceased lover, the Phillip Roth–esque Roland Marks, “He knew women really well—you could say, the masochistic inner selves of women.” We might well say the same of Oates, with the same complimentary awe. “

Says Library Journal: “More fiction from the daunting Oates, this time . . . stories unfolding the darkness that haunts us all. In the title story, a young woman interviewing an aging Robert Frost seems to peer straight into his soul. Elsewhere, a boy learns to love his grandmother, a woman refuses to allow her husband from her sight, and a lost pregnancy spells the end of a relationship. . . . Oates fans and short story lovers will eat it up.”

Kirkus Reviews says:  “What lurks in the woods is creepy and scary, but Oates ventures in deep and reports back in this collection of stories dealing with themes of mortality. The prolific Oates returns to short stories with this collection of 13 tales examining the reactions of humans confronting the final baby boomer frontier—death. Oates’ characters—including an assortment of deteriorating “great men,” isolated, lonely, middle-aged women, and couples on the downslide—encounter harbingers of their eventual fates with every canker sore, abortion, scab and biopsy. Elusive neighbors, living beyond an area of unexplored boundary woods, haunt the lives of aging suburbanites in “The Jesters” while a puzzled wife, in “The Disappearing,” mulls over the significance of her husband’s divestiture of his personal possessions. The enervating effects of a brush with death are examined from the points of view of a survivor, in “Mastiff,” and, in a twist on 1950s teenage-car-crash ballads, a victim, in “Forked River Roadside Shrine, South Jersey.” The collection’s titular story delivers a skewering of Robert Frost in its unsympathetic riff on the facts of the poet’s life as well as a testimonial to the role of the poet’s craft as a hedge against mortality. The aging literary lion in “Patricide,” Roland Marks, allows Oates another opportunity to poke at the myth of the “great man” of literature while providing clues as to which man of American letters may have annoyed Oates the most. As unsympathetic as many of Oates’ mordant and quasi-anonymous characters may appear at first, en masse their fears and anxieties in the face of death and decline epitomize universal recognition of hard facts: We’re all in this together, and nobody gets out alive.”

Says Booklist: “Oates, one of few writers who achieves excellence in both the novel and the short story, has more than two dozen story collections to her name and she continues to inject new, ambushing power into the form… Oates’ stories seethe and blaze.”

When is it available?

This lovely, dark and deep collection is waiting for you at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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