Faithless: Tales of Transgression

by Joyce Carol Oates

Published by The Ecco Press/HarperCollins

386 pages, 2001

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Goddess of Modern Goth

Reviewed by Sienna Powers


There is a sort of grandeur to the misery experienced by the female protagonists in Joyce Carol Oates' latest short story collection, Faithless. The women in these stories -- spurned lovers, troubled daughters, social misfits and society mavens -- are not simply dissatisfied or unhappy, they are monumentally outcast, downcast or cast away and -- dammit! -- some of them are going to do something about it. Something terrible and, perhaps, well... grand.

All of this drama is a little unsettling and, in the hands of a less skilled writer, could be cloying. Oates, however, is a drama queen, a goddess of tragedy. Oates spins the 21 tales in Faithless in taut, spare prose, imparting more with an expressive semicolon than other writers manage in whole paragraphs. Faithless is a triumph of lean understatement and Oates, a writer of almost epic reputation, has seldom been in better form.

In "Lover" a woman is taking matters into her own hands, Fatal Attraction-style. She's purchased a Saab -- a car unfamiliar to the lover who has pushed her aside and one he wouldn't associate with her. She intends to use the car as a weapon.

In bright sunshine it gleamed the beautiful liquidy green of the ocean's interior, and in clouded, impacted light it gleamed a subtler ... steely gunmetal grey. Its chassis was strongly built to withstand even terrible collisions.

In "What Then, My Life?" a woman contemplates who she might have been had an isolated event of abuse not clouded her childhood. In "Secret, Silent" a teenager determined to attend a university interview no matter what finds herself on a bus-launched nightmare that ultimately ends in greater self-understanding. In "Murder-Two" a lawyer finds herself falling in love with her client: a young man accused of killing his mother. The catch: (aside from the obvious two or three) the dead woman was the lawyer's school chum and -- more -- it seems quite obvious that he did it. Oates describes their first meeting.

She wasn't prepared to fall in love, wasn't the type to fall in love with any client yet here is what happened: just seeing him, his strange tawny-yearning eyes lifting to her face Help me! save me! -- that was it.

Derek Peck, Jr. was a Botticelli angel partly erased and crudely painted over by Eric Fischl .... He might have been fourteen, or twenty-five .... He gave off a complex odor of the ripely organic and the chemical. His skin appeared heated, of the color and texture of singed oatmeal. His nostrils were rimmed in red like nascent fire and his eyes were a pale acetylene yellow-green, flammable. You would not want to bring a match too close to those eyes, still less would you want to look too deeply into those eyes.

Though the stories vary greatly in location, situation, style and tone, Faithless, taken as a whole, is about -- one way or another -- the dangers of spending life too close to the fire. Oates' characters variously abuse drugs, alcohol, their loved ones and themselves, mostly to devastating effect. And though, overall, Faithless is a fairly dark book, the light -- when it occasionally shines through and a character is illuminated -- is fierce and beautiful.

Oates is in beautiful form in Faithless. In fact, it's tempting to call this her most perfectly rendered work to date. That would be a difficult call, however. In her long career, Oates has published 34 novels, 25 collections of short stories, four novellas, eight books of poetry, seven plays, a cluster of essays and a children's book. It's when you stop to realize that Oates' first novel -- With Shuddering Fall -- was published in 1964 that you can begin to fully appreciate how remarkable it is that an author who has written so many words and told that many tales can still come up with a collection as fresh and relevant as Faithless. | May 2001


Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.