Book Review: Give Me Your Heart

Give Me Your Heart
by Joyce Carol Oates

Reading Joyce Carol Oates has never been easy. Specifically, reading Joyce Carol Oates short stories is never easy. Especially coming from an education that espoused minimalism. Carver, Hempel, among others use few words to convey their meaning. But unlike other short story writers, Oates shorter works come out longer. The recent collection Sourland for example, contains novella-length works. To me, the collection wasn't too appealing. Additionally, unlike minimalists, Oates looks like she gets carried away. Her work is filled with long winding inner contemplation, fragmented sentences, exclaimation points, and italics. Where a minimalism collection is bound to have the occasional flash piece, Oates doesn't write like that. Reading it, you get no breather. You are drowned in words. But whereas this has failed her in the past (Dear Husband, was a terrible collection), perhaps it works better in the genre form.

In her newest collection Give Me Your Heart, Oates collects 10 "tales of mystery and suspense," all of which were previously published. Of course, for Oates, a literary writer through and through, some of these were published in places like The Kenyon Review and Conjunctions, but Oates is well known contributor to places like Ellery Queen's Literary Magazine.

One of the stories published in Ellery Queen was "Split/Brain." The second story of the book, it looks at what happens to woman's life when she tries her best to be a good wife, yet it's all interrupted by not only by the intruder in the house, but by the self-conscious realization that she has always tried her best to the good wife. This becomes her unsuspected (yet what could have happened otherwise?) downfall. The shortest of the stories at some pages, consisting of only one paragraph, it is perhaps one of the highlights in a traditional Joyce Carol Oatesian way. Like much of her work, this story explores the quiet dangers of domestic life. And like some of her best works, ("Landfill" from Dear Husband, comes to mind, the only good story in that collection) it is a full throttle, yet claustophobic piece, carefully constructed on the sentence level to surprise.

Unlike her more "literary" work, her genre work works to make you think as well as surprise you. And surprise you she does.

In this collection that explores the quiet darkness of relatinonships, what's scary is not the physical danger (guns, knives, too high waterfalls), but of the feelings involved in relationships that cause such physical dangers to happen. From revenge ("Give Me Your Heart") to jealousy ("The First Husband," "The Spill"), Oates points out that indeed guns don't kill, but instead, people do: people and their feelings and the fact that people cannot every be untied from their emotional lives: that is the scary part.

"So often words were surprises, like nudges in the ribs or slaps against the back of the head," she writes. And as if to reflect this, each of theses stories are crafted in a way to throw you around and make you lose faith in human beings: of all the people doing bad in this book, of course you have no choice but see parts of yourself. "In Homo sapiens," she writes in the award winning "Smother," "the talent for deception is our strongest evolutionary advantage."

Yet through all the stories, the fact remains clear that Oates is hard to read, even in the genre writing mode. Her suspense is the suspense like that of Poe not, say, Stephen King. This is both a strength that makes her work so unique, yet at the same time, pushes people away.

In any case, it took me a month to read this book...FML.

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