Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Black Dahlia & White Rose by Joyce Carol Oates

This 2012 publication, Black Dahlia & White Rose, is Joyce Carol Oates's twenty-fourth published collection of short stories. It contains eleven stories, all but one told from a female point of view, and several narrated by a woman. Bad things either happen or the characters dread them happening. The Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, is the victim of the unsolved kidnapping-torture-rape-murder-dissection in Los Angeles in 1947. Post mortem she narrates the story of her life and her roommate's, Norma Jean Baker. (Oates has no qualms dramatizing the impossible. In another story a woman and her lover turn into spotted hyenas.) A young girl has to ID a body suspected to be her murdered mother's. A good Samaritan finds a woman's wallet on a train, returns it to the woman's house, and meets her husband who is certainly distraught that his wife is missing, but who may also have killed her; we never learn what happened.

I very much liked the last story in the book, "Anniversary," because it echos my experience. An older woman—widow, professor, former college president—has volunteered to teach English in a New York State maximum security prison, working with another, much younger impetuous male volunteer. The story covers their first class with flashbacks to the orientation that the system gives to volunteers: Never touch a prisoner, even lightly on the wrist...never engage in flirtatious banter with a prisoner...never give a prisoner any gift however small, and never any money...never deliver any message even a verbal message from one prisoner to another, this is a felony. The prison (perhaps like most) has a no-hostage policy: if prisoners take hostages, there is no negotiating for their release. (Everyone get gassed and someone probably gets hurt.)

All of this rings so true and Oates's description of the prison so accurate I wondered briefly if she were writing about the facility in which I teach creative writing. It's not, but I'd like to talk to her about her experience. The point-of-view character, emotionally fragile anyway, is not reassured by the orientation nor by the behavior of her young colleague who has apparently (not uncommonly, if unfortunately) identified with the student inmates. At class end and the narrator's near-collapse from anxiety, it's not clear she will be returning. One hopes she does.

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