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Vanguard Press, 440 pp.; $6.95.
WOMEN'S confessions are swamping the media. Lady Bird Johnson tells McCall's' readership what it was really like a heartbeat away from the President. Gloria Steinem brings a tape recorder to the Harvard Business School, listens to all the women students wailing, and plays it back to New York magazine. And Carrie Snodgress dissects her marital crisis with a dash of liberal chic for every audience of The Diary of a Mad Housewife.
Book publishers are not letting the confessional fervor bypass them, either. Books by Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, and Betty Friedan are being reprinted and vigorously promoted. Even the Coop has set aside a special table for book on the Women's Movement, as if they were the hottest item since Psychedelic.
Joyce Carol Oates is not a women's liberationist. She is not as groovy as Gloria Steinem, nor as chic as Carrie Snodgress. You can't rip her books off the Coop's feminist display table and liberate your grandmother for Chanukah. But The Wheel of love. Oates' latest collection of short stories, is probably the most powerful and harrowing compilation of female confessionals shared in a long time.
The twenty stories in the book are all concerned with love, but Oates' conception of love is complex enough, and full of enough subtlety and energy, not to be stifling. More bluntly, there's not a role in one of them for Ali MacGraw.
The women who do appear are familiar from the rest of Oates' work. (At thirty-two, she has already written six novels, notably them, which won the National Book Award last year: also a play and a collection of poems). Her women are preoccupied with their identity, their sexuality, their roles, as often manipulators as mercilessly manipulated. Some have the mythic dimensions of the women in Bergman's films or O'Neill's plays; others are enigmatic and fragmented, like Dylan's women in "Blonde on Blonde."
Their perceptions of themselves are tossed through the stories like pieces of sea-weed in the waves, mangled and trembling. In the story "Four Summers." we get glimpses of a girl from childhood until her first pregnancy. Talking about herself, her voice is hauntingly complacent:
I am pretty, but my secret is that I am pretty like everyone is. My husband loves me for this but doesn't know it. I have a pink mouth and plucked darkened eyebrows and soft bangs over my forehead; I know everything, I have no need to learn from anyone else now. I am one of those girls younger girls study closely, to learn from. On buses, in five-and-tens, thirteen-year-old girls look at me solemnly, learning, memorizing.
In another story, "Matter and Energy," a young woman visiting her mother at the hospital is plagued by memories of her own first love:
The ornamental quality of the light; golden splotches. The half-drawn, cracked shades. His face, his shadowy eyes. We whisper to each other, "I love you . . ." I hear myself saying these words clearly enough. Am I drugged? Am I like my mother in the home, drugged and heavy-lidded and lying? But my lover whispers these words and he is not drugged. Our bodies, wound together, are heavy and very warm. I love this boy. I don't love this boy. I am loved by him . . .? I can't believe that I am loved by him, I am not loved, I am not even in this secret room, I am not even alive.
Beneath the superficial complacency or the obvious confusion of these confessionals, also lurks a vast amount of sustained fear. In the story "Demons," about a woman's first affair, this fear suddenly erupts in a frenzy:
He asked her to walk and she agreed. Why not? She felt a lazy stirring in her, but it was not soft as it should be in a woman; it was hard. She felt that she was half a man in this conversation, half the man she walked with and half herself, the one nudging and guiding them, the other being nudged. Was this the way real women felt about men? Real women? Did they discover a man who broke open the stubborn little cells of their blood and did they at once give themselves to him?
ALL THE WOMEN in Oates' stories live at a level of intensity which constantly verges on madness. Revealing this intensity is the writer's chief creative strength; artificially manipulating it, her weakness. Many of the stories, which are taut with psychological and surrealistic innuendo, still depend on violent melodrama for their activation. The story "Bodies," about a young sculptress plagued by a series of Dadaesque dreams, reaches a grotesque climax when a man slashes his throat in front of her, twists himself around her hips, splashing her with blood. As the story ends, the woman fears the suicide's blood has impregnated her.
Occasionally, Oates' examination of female obsession becomes ludicrous not because of melodrama, but because of an exaggeratedly literary preciosity. A simple picture of a girl walking her dog opens one of the stories. But we are quickly told that "she wanted no intimate relationship with the dog and it was strange how perfectly respectable men and women could walk dogs and think nothing of what they were involved in . . ." Then, as an added literary fillip, follows the admission, "Living demanded restraint and a constant tugging back at the leash, you never gave in, never let the dog free."
There are moments like these in the stories when Oates is simply too clever, too conscious of being a writer. More often, her tyranny relaxes into an awesome demonstration of control. One of the most remarkable stories in the collection is a series of "Unmailed, Unwritten Letters," conceived by a young woman to be sent to her parents, husband, and lover, also his wife and daughter, a genius who at six wrote "tidy, little poems like Blake's." The sense of desperateness and guilt that these letters evoke taints the final fragment to her lover with an almost ghoulish bitterness: "My darling, you have made me so happy . . ."
These weird ironies are the vertebrae of many of Oates' best stories. Sometimes they protrude like irregular knobs; more often, they're slipped in, almost surreptitiously:
Slowly, out of habit, their bodies twined together. They embraced. They were friends, though perhaps not best friends, they were in love. When they made love Nina thought, there, that's accomplishment, if we die now we're that much to the good . . . .
In many stories, the neat ironies, the tiny vertebrae give way to something more formless, confusion without any supportive skeleton. In "Convalescing," a man traumatized by a car accident tries to understand his wife:
He pressed his hand against his forehead, baffled by the mystery of personality. Who were these people? Who was this woman that she had come to mean so mean so much to him? It was not just his own soul that was opaque, lost, but the souls of people he loved and had believed he knew, had trusted . . . and beyond them, the shadowy souls of people known to him only over the television screen or in newspaper photographs, the famous and notorious, monumental figures, shadowy nubs of being as mysterious to him as his own past.
Another man confesses his fears in "An Interior Monologue":
I have lived alone for years, since I left my parents' house. I wake up at a quarter to one, with a headache. I take an aspirin, a simple and innocent act and suddenly I see them-lying in an embrace, the sheet carelessly over them, X up on one elbow and joking with her and her joking back, nothing is serious or sacred between them, they are in love, in love, in love; I am six miles away suddenly nauseated, living alone.
Their confessions wrench us not only because they are so personal, but also because in their amorphousness is a despair we can all feel, not as women or men, but as human beings. And surely, this is Joyce Carol Oates' only real concern, evoking this kind of understanding, raising this kind of human consciousness. And her Wheel of Love then is also a wheel of lies, of lust, of loss, of life.
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