Joyce Carol Oates has a new book out, but I'm reading her 2006 selected stories for my MFA workshop at Rutgers-Newark. The story that's haunting/inspiring me right now is "The Dead," from her 1972 collection Marriages & Infidelities. About a prescription-drug-addicted novelist who writes a zeitgeisty bestseller that nets her the cover of a famous magazine, the narrative opens with Ilena contemplating pharmaceutical side effects:
Caution against hazardous occupations requiring complete mental alertness. What did that mean, "complete mental alertness"? Since the decline of her marriage, a few years ago, Ilena thought it wisest to avoid complete mental alertness. That was an overrated American virtue.
With that, the story's sardonic tone is set, and Oates never lets up over the next 32 pages of this tour de force of the form. The best passages demonstrate a total fusion of prose and point of view that spur me to achieve the same in my writing. Here's Ilena, who maintains her teaching career despite her elevated profile, after she has sex with her lover Gordon in his office:
She sprang back to her feet, assisted by this man who seemed to love her so helplessly, her face framed by his large hands, her hair smoothed, corrected by his hands. She felt only a terrible chilly happiness, an elation that made no sense. And so she would put on her coat and run across the snowy, windswept campus to teach a class in freshman composition, her skin rosy, radiant, her body soiled and reeking beneath her clothes, everything secret and very lovely. Delirious and articulate, she lived out the winter. She thought, eying her students: If they only knew....It was all very high, very nervous and close to hysteria...
I was so fully absorbed by "The Dead" that I resisted nature's call halfway through in order to reach the end without stopping. When I finished, I felt Ilena beating inside me—and I knew how to produce a similar effect in my next story.