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FAITHLESS: TALES OF TRANSGRESSION
Memory is Not Truth and Truth is Seldom Beauty.

By Paula Guran

Faithless: Tales of Transgression
by Joyce Carol Oates
ECCO/HarperCollins/ $27.00/352 pages
ISBN: 0060185252

Joyce Carol Oates' dazzling place in the literary firmament is, of course, already established. In fact, she's a veritable constellation unto herself. An amazingly productive essayist, poet, playwright, critic, novelist and short story writer, she consistently produces work of stellar brilliance. Oates shines most brightly when she is exploring the darkest reaches of the American soul.

In her latest (of two dozen or so!) collection, FAITHLESS: TALES OF TRANSGRESSION, Oates is mesmerizing. She slices into the private lives of ordinary men and women, their obsessions, secrets, psyches, passions, and perceptions of good and evil -- with the intensity of a laser that illuminates as it cuts.

The twenty-one "tales of transgression" collected here share the single sinful theme and are further divided into three loosely connected sub-themes. Sex --erotic, merely sexual, sometimes inextricably linked to violence -- is another device integral to many of the stories. The dangers and disturbances of the purely corporeal and the knowledge that memory is often oblivious to reality are two more motifs. But despite similarities, this rich collection of stories also offers vast variety.

The seven stories of the first section all reflect the grotesqueries of the ordinary and the obsession of the individual. In "Au Sable," Mitch receives a call from his wife's father. The older man and his wife have decided on suicide. They've left all in order, including the tidy and informative call to the son-in-law who is most promise to abide by their final wishes. A plain waitress at a cheap seaside diner reluctantly experiences an hour of being loved in "Ugly." In "Summer Sweat" an affair and its conclusion is re-examined years later. Using her car, the highway, and even other drivers as a weapon, a woman seeks revenge against the married man who dumped her in ''Lover." A female academic has an affair with a young student in the slightly sardonic ''Questions.'' The boy tries to kill himself when it ends and the woman handles his distressed dad in an unusual way. Pain brings a man close to a young woman in "Physical." A life-long erotic fascination is examined in "Gunlove."

Each of the second section's stories revolve around families and tend more toward settings in the country or small towns rather than the suburbs of the first. The title story's ending is predictable, but the narrative leading up to it deftly weaves multiple betrayals and distortions of reality. A mother disappears leaving two young daughters whose lives are shaped by the misperception -- both intentional and "innocent"-if-not-untainted -- of her faithlessness. In the next story, ''The Scarf,'' a daughter gives a special scarf to her mother. Years later, with death close, the mother perceives the gift as coming from another and gives it back. A women looks back on an attack in her youth and memory of a loveless grandmother in "What Then, My Life?". She realizes that "just to remember something is not to know if it really happened. That is the primary fact of the inner life, the most difficult fact with which we must live." In the sinister "Secret, Silent" a high school girl becomes enmeshed in a violent situation, but still manages to make it to the scholarship interview that will shape her life.

Book CoverWith the exception of "The Scarf" -- in which a woman is on the verge of dying -- each of these stories involves an assault. Violence, after all, is as American as the nuclear family. But this is only mild prelude the disturbances of the final section.

The perfect daddy treats his little princess to a perfect day that ends in bloody chaos in ''A Manhattan Romance." In ''Murder-Two'' a boy is accused of horrific matricide. An ex-husband hunts human prey in ''The Vigil.'' "We Were Worried About You" is a brief but chilling sketch of inadvertent but far from guiltless murder. A woman determines not to be a victim and to protect herself in "The Stalker." "The Vampire" has nothing to do with supernatural monsters, but is terrifying in its portrayal of how one's very life can be sucked out by another. Oates portrays the inner life of a thirteen-year-old as he attempts to become the someone he wants to be -- cool and, ultimately, a killer -- in the poignant, shocking, and utterly real "Tusk."

Individual lives of quiet desperation? Stories we can be affected by emotionally, but remain essensially subjective about? In a tour de force of truly subversive fiction, Oates dispels any chance of keeping our faith intact with the last three stories of FAITHLESS. Each story offers a protagonist who comments on society, but who is also part of that same society -- and reminds us that we are all.

A famous and respected mystery writer ("The High School Sweetheart: A Murder Mystery?") delivers a compelling piece of fiction relating how he committed a single terrible crime as a teen-ager. Has his subsequent successful and celebrated career actually been a continual public confession? Or is he simply a master of the art of entertaining a public besotted with mystery, bloodshed, and violence?

In "Death Watch" a journalist rails against capital punishment even as he makes his living from it. "It's a bitter truth: In a capitalist society truth must be marketed like any other product."

A vacuous undercover investigative television reporter (American democracy depends "upon a continuous exposure of truth.") is out to bring police cruelty to light. He, instead, becomes the victim of a viscous rape that destroys his life.

Joyce Carol Oates frightens us with ourselves. She tells us we are all co-conspirators. We, too, are the transgressors and the transgressed against. Nor can we ever completely trust ourselves -- memory is not truth and truth is seldom beauty. FAITHLESS: TALES OF TRANSGRESSION is provocative, disturbing, and further proof of its author's mastery of both form and the complexities of modern fear. -- Paula Guran --Originally published in The Spook; another version appeared in Cemetery Dance #35

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Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.