Zero Sum: Stories
“One night the growth detaches from the girl’s scalp and that’s when the story gets really interesting.”
Joyce Carol Oates has written more than 60 novels and numerous volumes of short stories, nonfiction, and poetry. She has taught at Princeton and several other universities for over four decades. For half a century, critics have called her the Dark Lady of Letters.
Her most recent writing persuades the reader that everything thought of as solid is actually fleeting and ephemeral. We start losing grandparents and parents, then friends, and then a spouse. Loss is the human experience, and Joyce makes you realize that the human experience is going to be your experience.
Welcome to the funhouse and her unsettling collection of stories in Zeo Sum in which she shows society in all its imperfect layers and permutations that speak to the sinister undercurrent of home life.
As a mature writer Joyce’s writing has become highly elliptical. She liberally sprinkles the text with italics (and parenthetical asides). At her level of achievement, though, she can afford to break the rules of syntax, dependent clauses, and correctly punctuated phrases. The reader doesn’t care because Joyce’s meanings are always crystal clear.
The story, “This Is Not a Drill,” draws on experience with the recent pandemic, suggesting that technology will fail us, that bodies will pile up in makeshift morgues, that sirens will warn you to stay in your house. Oates suggests that this is a recurrent experience in the future. She is not concerned with philosophical questions but rather explores how people actually live and survive.
“The Suicide” is a stream-of-consciousness monologue by a bipolar novelist who cannot bring himself to kill himself because he cannot yet pen the perfect suicide note. Torn, he spends half his life debating whether to leave a suicide note or not. How, as a writer, can he hardly leave an inept note, yet if one is a writer how can you not want to leave a note? Irony eats at him that the “trouble with life” is the expectation that you must actually live it, “not just write about it.”
After many hospitalizations for failed suicide attempts (which made him a recognized celebrity in town), ECT shock treatment is a last resort for his malignant despondency. Hovering over him is a hyper–attentive wife who is like a seeing eye dog trained to protect its owner at all costs. When, finally, the wife ventures out he decides to hang himself in the basement but struggles with making a noose, “a challenge for one who’d failed at each Boy Scout project in succession.”
His do-I-or-don’t-I argument segues into fantasy and possible headlines: Writer Kills Self Without Knowing He Has Won Nobel Prize; Writer Kills Self Without Knowing His Novel Has Been Sold to Hollywood for $100 Million.
In the opening story, “Zero Sum,” a high–strung graduate student, K., unravels during an off-campus barbeque hosted the professor with whom she once had an affair. We are placed in K’s interior thoughts and deliberations as she realizes that her invitation is belated. “Others have been invited before her, unmistakably.” Love to K. “seemed the very quintessence of the zero-sum game.” Her inamorata “has no interest, he is all disinterest.”
In “Take Me I Am Free” we ache for a little girl whose intemperate mother puts her out among the curbside garbage. The child had been scolded for waking up too early and interfering with her mother’s schedule. “It’s her. She’s defective,” the mother wails. “You can’t see it. Her father can’t see it. But I see it.” Having never “signed up” for motherhood, the mother regards the child as a thing, “Sucking all the oxygen out of my lungs.” The tale ends, in O. Henry style, from the child’s point of view.
In “Lovesick” Joyce reminds us that in love, one is loved more, the other less. “This can never be doubted, never contested, rarely acknowledged.” Nor does she spare us the harsh realities of life in “Sparrow.” No news “in the life of an unmarried woman in her midforties means exactly what it suggests: no news.”
In the macabre “Monstersister,” an adolescent girl wakes up to find a bump on her head. Is it a bug bite? The mother inspects it to find it is much more. “. . . oh my God! I hope it isn’t your brain leaking out.” But it isn’t. It is far worse. It seems to be alive. As it grows big enough to reach down her neck and then hang down her back, the mother knits clothes for it. Feeds it. Then one night the growth detaches from the girl’s scalp and that’s when the story gets really interesting, with an unexpected twist at the end.