BOOK REVIEW: ‘Evil Eye’: Who’s Afraid of Joyce Carol Oates?

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'Evil Eye': Who's Afraid of Joyce Carol Oates?
Once you’ve read the latest book from the nation’s — perhaps the world’s — most prolific writer — “Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong” (Mysterious Press, 224 pages, $23.00) you might answer that question in the above headline: “I am!
Yes, it would be in the italics that Oates is so fond of using — often to the point of distraction to many readers, including the reviewer. If you’re afraid to delve into the deepest, darkest recesses of your soul, you should be afraid of Joyce Carol Oates. She’s the ultimate horror writer (life is often a series of horrors) because she knows what’s in there and she’s fearless in writing about it. She’s the equal of Cornell Woolrich (“Rear Window”, “La Mariée était en noir” — “The Bride Wore Black” –made into outstanding films by,  respectively, Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut) or Patricia Highsmith (“Strangers on a Train” and the Ripley novels).

In the title novella, “Evil Eye”,  we meet Mariana, the young, fourth wife, of a prominent public intellectual, and a woman who has much in common with with Cecilia, the protagonist in the fourth story, “The Flatbed.”

Both Marianna and Cecilia are attractive, well educated women who are dominated by the men in their lives: Austin Mohr  in “Evil Eye” and a man in his 40s designated as  “N” in “The Flatbed.”
Men — including but not limited to Mohr and “N” —  are guilty of “mansplaining” both Marianna and Cecilia. What’s that? It’s a word — a neologism — that I came across for the first time in a piece in The New Republic by Russia expert Julia Ioffe, who accused MSNBC personality Lawrence O’Donnell of condescending to her  — “mansplaining” — in a discussion of Edward Snowden: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114234/lawrence-odonnell-yells-julia-ioffe-about-putin-and-snowden

Ioffe, a native of Russia who left the country for the U.S.  as a child with her Jewish parents, is a native Russian speaker who’s been stationed in Moscow as a journalist, said that:
“Tonight, I went on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show, and Lawrence O’Donnell yelled at me. Or, rather, he O’Reilly’d at me. That O’Donnell interrupted and harangued and mansplained and was generally an angry grandpa at me is not what I take issue with, however. What bothers me is that, look: your producers take the time to find experts to come on the show, answer your questions, and, hopefully, clarify the issue at hand. 


“I was invited on the show to talk about Obama’s (very wise) decision to cancel his Moscow summit with Putin, about which I wrote here. I am an expert on Russia. In fact, it is how you introduced me: “Previously, she was a Moscow-based correspondent for Foreign Policy and The New Yorker.” I’m not going to toot my own horn here, but I was there for three years, I’m a fluent, native speaker of Russian, and, god damn it, I know my shit.”  

Julia: Meet Mariana and Cecilia, two women who’ve been mansplained repeatedly!

In “Evil Eye,” we meet Mariana, the young 4th wife of a prominent intellectual. When her husband’s first wife visits one night, Mariana is shocked to see an older, still glamorous woman with one eye. Austin insists to her later that she was mistaken, that Ines, his first wife, has both her eyes. Is her husband trying to drive her crazy, the way Charles Boyer was doing to Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 George Cukor-helmed movie “Gaslight”?

In “The Flatbed” Cecilia is a 29-year-old woman in a relationship with “N”, a man similar to Austin Mohr in “Evil Eye” in that they’re both highly regarded public intellectuals. Cecilia confides to “N” that a man named “G” (how like Kafka is Oates behaving with all these “N”s and “G”s! And why am I using parentheses the way Oates uses italics?) sexually molested her when she was nine years old. That’s why Cecilia is so sexually repressed, or so she believes. Cecilia and “N” meet “G”, a man who’s now 72, but who is still handsome and well-preserved in a cemetery. No, I’m not going to say any more to spoil this story.

Now for the other two novellas:

In “So Near   Anytime    Always,” shy teenager Lizbeth March meets Desmond Parrish, a charming boy who offers this introverted girl in western New York state  the first sparks of young romance.  Just as their relationship begins to blossom, Lizbeth realizes that beneath Desmond’s perfect façade lies a dark soul that could wreak havoc on Lizbeth and her loved ones.

In “The Execution,” spoiled college student Bart Hansen has planned the perfect, brutal crime to get back at his parents for their years of condescension. What he didn’t plan for is a mother whose love is more resilent than he could have ever imagined, who threatens to derail his carefully plans.

People often ask me why I like the writing of my contemporary (we were both born in 1938) Joyce Carol Oates so much. To some I say she rivals Dostoevsky in her understanding of the darkest elements of ordinary people. To others I say she’s a damn fine writer who’s very entertaining (if you don’t mind an occasional Oates-induced nightmare!). You either like her writing — so many people do! — or don’t.

I also say, facetiously (I think) that reading Oates is cheaper than going to a shrink and I learn just as much. 

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates

 

About the Author

Joyce Carol Oates, born in Lockport, NY in 1938, is the author of more than 70 books, including novels, short story collections, poetry volumes, plays, essays, and criticism, including the national bestsellers “We Were the Mulvaneys” and “Blonde”. Among her many honors are the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the National Book Award. Oates is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. For my Jan. 3, 2013 review of her novel “Daddy Love”: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/53344

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