By my count, based on her website, Joyce Carol Oates has published 50 novels for adults, 6 Young Adult novels, 12 novellas or novella collections, 8 poetry collections, 36 story collections, 14 works of various types of nonfiction, 9 books of plays, and 3 books for children, for a staggering total of 138 volumes of work since beginning her career in 1963. That’s an average of 2.7 books a year, a number she just barely bested this year with two novels and the collection of novellas reviewed below.
By any measure, Oates is a ridiculously prolific author, and I have read pitifully few of those 138 volumes, so I can’t claim to be able to make any generalizations about her work. Nevertheless, of the few works of hers I have read, it is her short fiction in which I have found the most teen appeal–despite my repeated claims that short stories are a hard sell for teens. For a small example: both of the novels she published this year were highly acclaimed, and one, The Accursed, seemed to have potential for this blog–with its gothic setting and mysterious plot. I had both of our reviewers and my most trusted adviser in teen taste (my wife) read it, and both found it too arcane and slow-moving to appeal to teens. Yet I found all four of the novellas in Evil Eye to be eminently readable and packed with teen appeal.
The other small generalization I can make, at least about the works I have read, is that they are uniformly, provocatively feminist, in the best possible sense of that term. To get specific, rather than general, the four novellas in Evil Eye focus on what happens to women when they are objectified by the male eye. Spoiler alert: the answer is death and destruction, though not always of the woman in question. The key here, is that the “love gone wrong” in these tales is never really “love” at all, but possessiveness and lust, at least on the part of the men. Of course, if you (or the teens you serve) are not terribly interested in gender politics, it is equally possible to read these stories as simply horror stories, two supernatural and two all too natural. In either case, these tales will leave a definite mark on your psyche.
OATES, Joyce Carol. Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong. 224p. Mysterious Pr.: Grove/Atlantic. 2013. Tr $23. ISBN 9780802120472.
Adult/High School–Oates’s strengths as a popular (as opposed to literary) writer tend to come out most strongly in her short fiction, such as The Museum of Dr. Moses (Harcourt, 2007), and these four novellas are no exception. Each of these stridently feminist tales centers on the reactions of female lovers–plus, in one case, a male child–to the violently possessive, and ultimately destructive, love of a man. In the first tale–which quite lives up to its allusions to both Poe and The Twilight Zone–the much-younger fourth wife of a famous intellectual gradually becomes aware of the dark underside of his personality, with the help of her husband’s first wife, a woman strangely interested in the evil eye and horrifically missing one of her own eyes. The second story tells of the first love of 16-year-old Lizbeth for a slightly older boy who is convinced that they have met in a past life and who becomes increasingly erratic in his behavior. While these two stories include death and violence, they remain hauntingly atmospheric; the latter two novellas, however, are brutally frank in their violence. A college-aged son kills his father and maims his mother with an ax, and a 29-year-old rape victim allows her new lover to help her exact revenge. All four novellas feature Oates’s finely honed prose and incisive, provocative themes. The supernatural trappings of the opening pair of tales, the young ages of the protagonists, and the air of doomed, obsessive love should attract teens to this fabulous collection.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA