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Monday, June 09, 2008

Mini review of Beasts

beasts.jpgI just finished reading Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates. It’s only the second Oates novel I’ve read, and like the first one, the promise outstripped the delivery. To be fair, Beasts was not a bad read, but it felt like one of those stories that’s all about build…it’s the journey, not the destination. But in horror, or gothic literature as this purports to be, it needs to build to a crescendo, explode, and then echo away.

Okay, here’s the concept. The events take place at a girl’s college, way back in the swinging 70s, and at the school is this enigmatic poetry instructor and his avant garde sculptor of a wife. The girls find the teacher’s direct and passionate ways invigorating, and most, if not all, want to please him and be pleased by him. Our main character is one such character…as the story unfolds we learn that the poetry instructor’s wife takes in girls as unpaid interns and they spend a LOT of time with her and her husband, but they mustn’t tell anyone that they’re interns…and these girls tend to have problems. And to add complication, someone is starting fires on campus!

On the plus side, it’s short. About 140 pages short. So the story almost carries its length. Oates does manage an admirable level of expectation that kept me turning the pages. But the destination is short, not nearly as shocking as you expect, and presented at a delicate distance. You don’t have to deal with the ugly stuff too closely or look too long. I would assume that this has some of the qualities of a gothic romance, though there’s no knight at the end to sweep our narrator up in her arms and carry her away from the ugliness. Well, not really, but I’ve said too much already (:

Oates is a highly regarded literary author and her chops are in evidence here, but just barely. The book, which is really a novella, never really lives up to the concept though. The ruminations on human behavior, morality, etc. seem rather thin to this reader. Maybe I just didn’t get what she was trying to say as the message seemed pretty simplistic. So, when you combine a lightweight plot with a lightweight theme, well, you end up disappointing some of us. If I were her teacher (heh!), and this were an assignment, I’d give her a C+ . That said, I will read more of her stuff as I think I’ve read  a couple of her lesser works.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've always felt somewhat guilty about not loving Joyce Carol Oates' writing. The stuff I've read, while constructed with lovely prose, has never really just "hit" me. I always thought it was just me.

Anonymous said...

Clifford: The theme I was trying to convey in Beasts was more of a question: where would today's society be headed if there were no nuclear weapons? A stretch to set the piece at a girls' school, I know. FWIW, the original was 300 pages and unwieldy -- JCO

Clifford said...


What a dialog we could have if I knew that this was really "you". Hell, I would reread the book to see if I could glean your intent. But I fear my leg is being pulled here. Sigh. It's funny how the potential of the internet fails us at the most compelling times.

Anonymous said...

Alas, you are correct. I am one of those internet scoundrels, reveling in my anonymous cloak -- enjoying your blog just the same. -- JCO

Clifford said...


I don't know what to think about you...thanks for reading my stream-of-consciouness mess, though. Whoever you are, be well, and remain a scoundrel...the world needs more of 'em.

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This is me and one of my two cats. His name is Cougar, and he’s an F1 Chausie. A chausie is a new breed of cat under development. Chausies are the result of a cross between a domestic cat (in Cougar’s case, a Bengal) and a jungle cat (Felis Chaus). Cougar’s mom is 8 pounds and his father is a 30-pound jungle cat. He’s about 16 pounds, super intelligent, spirited, and toilet trained. A writer without a cat (or two) is not to be trusted.