I AM NO ONE YOU KNOW is the most recent collection of previously
published short stories by Joyce Carol Oates. This latest
assortment consists of nineteen tales that range from "In Hiding,"
a creepy tale about the one mistake a person might make in the
spirit of generosity that will ultimately bring danger to her/him,
to a very charming tale about two friends who happen upon Marilyn
Monroe in the famous Strand bookstore in Manhattan. The body of
work produced by Ms. Oates is outstanding for its range of topics
and its breadth of forms. Her stories are so intense that they
immediately grab readers and keep them reading.
But more than that, Oates leaves her reader reeling from the way
she handles her characters, settings, dialogue, descriptions and on
points timeliness. "In Hiding" begins as a pleasant story about a
divorced poet/teacher/translator who lives with her teenage son in
upstate New York. One day she receives a packet of poetry and prose
from a stranger.
"Please accept my poetry as a gift. I love your poetry truly.
Even if you don't have time to read my writings. Even if you don't
have a feeling for it. I understand. His name was Woodson
Johnston, Jr. --- 'Woody.' He was an inmate at Kansas State
Penitentiary in Fulham, Kansas." She read the poems and the few
diary entries he had sent: "She'd given in to impulse [and] mailed
off [a thank you] card, and that was that!" But of course it
"Three Girls" is a "typical" New York story, with two students,
"NYU girl-poets drifting through the warehouse of treasures as
through an enchanted forest, known to them as Strand Used Books on
Broadway and Twelfth [during a] snowy March [evening] … in
1956." In their giddiness among the great books stacked in
mile-high piles, one of them glances up and sees "an individual
… pulling down books … a woman nearly my height …
in a man's navy coat to her ankles and with sleeves past her
wrists, a man's beige fedora hat on her head, scrunched low …
and most of her hair hidden by the hat." At first the storyteller
is unable to place this woman who is so deep in the study of the
tomes she's pulling off the shelves. "The blond woman turned,
taking down another book from the shelf, and I saw that she was
Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe. In the Strand. Just like us. And
she seemed to be alone. Marilyn Monroe, alone!"
Still unrecognized, she appeared to be a book junkie just like the
other customers. But by 1956, "Marilyn Monroe had entered history,
and there was no escape from it." Or was there?
Of the nineteen stories, the third that is especially noteworthy is
"The Mutants." In this truly realistic and timely tale, a young
woman who seems to have been "touched by the angels" has moved from
her Midwestern home to New York City. She is blond, beautiful and
loved by all who know her. She lives in a gorgeous apartment with a
breathtaking view, she is engaged to be married and "… as
always on weekday mornings her fiancé left the apartment
early. She'd gone out shortly after 8 a.m. to a nearby Kinko's to
pick up a color … manuscript (of a children's book) and she
was crossing … [the street] … when she heard a droning
noise at first annoying and then alarming as of a gargantuan hornet
and when she looked up she saw a sight so unnerving her eyes at
first refused to decode it; an airplane, a commercial airliner,
enormous, flying unnaturally low, careening out of the sky and of
her stunned vision behind a bank of buildings as, in the next
instant, she was thrown to her knees on the pavement by a colossal
explosion … she fell, slivers of glass were pelting her
exposed skin … yet her reflexes were … rapid …
and in nearly the same second in which she heard [another]
explosion … she was running into … her building …
past individuals stunned" [into frozen beings.] When she reaches
the sanctuary of her apartment, at first she thinks she's in a
daydream until she realizes "she was beginning to breathe
strangely. Her mouth was coated with a fine dry dust … why
was it so dark? The sky had vanished."
She hesitates and is confused and really doesn't know what to do.
Should she try to get out, or should she stay? Was she the only
person left inside --- was she the last person alive? Her psyche is
too overwhelmed; she is incapable of making a decision about what
to do. Her paralysis in the face of what feels like an apocalyptic
event is a fascinating character study and reminds us, again, what
9/11 did to our country and our people.
The remaining sixteen stories that comprise I AM NO ONE YOU KNOW
are as moving, thrilling, frightening, amusing and economical as
these. Joyce Carol Oates stands as one of the most prolific writers
of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. Her canvas is painted
with a wide variety of subjects: boxing, religion, murder,
politics, relationships, law, health, morality, rage, suburbanites
and city dwellers. Her overreaching and kaleidoscopic talent
embraces the American scene and its populace. The stories in this
collection are a pastiche of the themes, style and versatility of
subject that has marked her career as a writer.
She has said that "all of us who write work out of conviction that
we are participating in some sort of communal activity …
[understand that] in general the writing writes itself." Only an
artist who is confident in her work and ideas could make a
statement of such sweeping proportions. In her art Joyce Carol
Oates has reached far beyond the realm of the ordinary, and in so
doing has created a body of work that will endure.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 22, 2011