I don’t care for Joyce Carol Oates’ writing. Her style I shall call “lumpacious” — an excess of words and arthritic phrasings put to the service of despair and gloom without a ray of humor. Nonetheless, I struggle to keep an open mind; so when I came upon her short fiction, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” I stopped to read it. The story is about a young academic, thirtyish and virginal, who is to meet the poet, Robert Frost.
I was conscious of the great honor of being allowed an interview . Robert Frost, the preeminent American poet, poet of the era, and I prepared with more than my usual assiduousness. This means reading and rereading virtually all of Frost’s poems, many of which, without having intended to, I’d memorized as a school girl. (“Lovely, Dark, Deep” by Joyce Carol Oates, Harpers, November 2013 pg. 71.)
Oates might have written, “I prepared to meet the great American poet by reading and rereading his work, some of which I knew by heart as a school girl.” But the author prefers a more ornamented style. Perhaps she wishes to capture the young woman’s exuberance, but so much verbiage puts my teeth on edge. Nonetheless, I read on and I’m glad I did.
Though Oates’ depiction of the young academic struck me as cliché, her characterization of the male ego, expressed through her character, Robert Frost, is priceless. Confronted by a nubile maiden, the old poet is eager to establish his male dominance. His eyes wander over her body as if she’s come for a gynecological examination. He laces his conversation with terms of endearment, like “my dear,” to establish an air of condescension and when the young woman mistakenly sits on a damp chair, he lavishes her with concern. Are her panties wet, he wonders. And has she, perhaps brought a second pair with her? In sum, Oats subjects the reader to all the sexual folderol that passes between men and women, folderol which members of the fair sex, especially those born before women’s liberation, had been taught to ignore by lowering of their eyes and saying nothing.
Finally the conversation turns to its intended purpose — talk of poetry, mainly Frost’s. The old man is comfortable on his turf. He submits to her questions satisfied that like a clam, he can close his shell whenever he chooses. Unfortunately, he arrogance betrays him. He ventures too far, finds himself exposed and flustered by the woman’s relentless questions. In the end, we leave him, lying on his back in the tall grass and breathing heavily, a victim of an outburst after having been bested.
“Lovely, Dark, Deep” raises my opinion of Oates’ work a notch. Her characters ring true and to my surprise, I finished the piece with a smile.
(Joyce Carol Oates courtesy of www.princetontrourcompany.com)