I 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.