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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Mastiff" by Joyce Carol Oates

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. If that doesn't earn me some Literary Hipster "street-cred" then I don't know what else I can do...

Issue: July 1, 2013

Story: "Mastiff"

Author: Joyce Carol Oates

Plot: A 41-year old California woman (called simply "the woman" in this story) goes on a day-hike into the mountains with the man whom she's seeing. On the hike she alternately rejoices that this man might be "the one" and laments the fact that he's not more attentive to her. She is full of contradictions: she wants to be pursued, but she also wants to have control of the relationship. She herself is withholding of affection, and then she pouts that the man is not more affectionate to her. At the end of the hike, the woman is attacked by a large Mastiff dog, but the man jumps in and saves her. The man is badly injured, and the trauma causes the woman to feel genuine emotion as she waits with him in the hospital, realizing that perhaps she should let herself go and love someone. 

Review: This can't be right, but I think this may be the first thing I've ever read by Joyce Carol Oates. A man with an MFA in Fiction ought to be ashamed to admit that (and really, during the course of my life I must've read something else by her). But I finally just now feel like I've "discovered" JCO; I understand why she is so revered. 

From a craft perspective, JCO's writing is absolutely the quintessence of what prose should be. Her sentences are spare, concise, and yet loaded with meaning. Consider the sentence: "And the woman no longer lost herself in drink; that life was behind her." In fourteen words, the author communicates so much about the woman's character. That sentence is almost a biography in and of itself. Consider also, another sentence about the woman's relationship to her absent father: "All her life she'd yearned for that absent man, even as she'd resented him." Such a basic, almost rudimentary sentence and yet it conveys the fundamental conflict in the woman's mind, well enough to immediately equip the reader with the tools to understand her character. 

Now that we have a firm footing for understanding this character, we can become interested in her and even begin to like her. This is what's missing from most of the short fiction I read; the main character is simply not likable. What JCO does here is to take a character who is essentially aloof and afraid of love, and cause us to root for her. That, my friends, is artistry.

This story, in my opinion, is also a great example of the concept of (for lack of a better word) "tone." JCO sets an ominous tone very early in this story, immediately in fact, and is able to keep that going throughout. She immediately exposes us to the dog: a lumbering, snorting, hulk of an animal that drags its owner around the trail. She juxtaposes that with the woman, who is merely 5' 3" and very slight. The woman is in awe and fear of the dog, though she pretends not to be. JCO tells us that the woman had been attacked by a dog as a child, only to be saved by her parents. Therefore, the existence of the big, scary mastiff out on the trail presents a looming conflict that pervades every word of this story: the woman will be forced to encounter the dog again, just like she will be forced to one day release her pretensions and love soemone.

Ultimately, when she encounters the dog again, she freaks out. This triggers some impulse in the dog, and he pounces on her. This is interesting for a number of reasons. First, JCO's stories very often involve the rape of a woman. In this case, I believe the dog attack functions as a symbolic rape; however, it is not a rape in the traditional sense. It is more of a collision between the woman's dread and the source of that dread. Had she been emotionally secure enough to express to the man her fears about the dog, he might have walked ahead of her and given her some protection. Instead, her very reluctance to reveal her emotions causes a crisis in which she is forced to reveal them. Just like her very fear of the dog causes him to attack; it is a twisted sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. 

In my opinion, the dog also represents the inevitability and irrepressible persistence of time, love, and death (this is a very symbolic pooch, right??). Those are the things from which a person cannot and dare not try and run, for the path leading away from those things is lonely, dangerous, and  impossible to climb. The lesson: you simply cannot cheat time, turn away from love, or ignore the fact of your own mortality. We see this lesson borne out as the woman sits beside the man in his hospital bed, sobbing uncontrollably while the man sleeps. She is experiencing an outpouring of bottled up emotion and, we hope, will try to love this man and be a complete person. 

This story is a masterful example of the craft of short, literary prose fiction; a character is thrust into an every-day situation laden with tension and conflict, the resolution of which causes her to change and recognize things outside herself, while the elements of the story act as symbolic reference points that can be extrapolated to the reader's individual lives, no matter how diverse. 

Well done JCO, I will shortly become much more acquainted with your work, and I'm sorry I haven't already. 


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