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Review: Faithless



I read Joyce Carol Oatesís Bellefleur over 25 years ago and remember being immediately enthralled by the surreal world Oates created. A mixture of literary, mythology, and real events, the saga of the Bellefleur clan, which included millionaires, a mass murderer, even a beautiful vampire, was something I had never read before or have read since. The lyricism of the prose made it an unforgettable read.

Oates, also a short story writer, has a unique voice that is unduplicated and has garnered praise from major reviewers, including the New York Times Book Review and The Boston Globe. I recently picked up her anthology, Faithless, tales of transgression (2001), a collection of short fiction that on the blurb is described as an exploration of "the mysterious private lives of men and women with vivid, unsparing precision and sympathy."

Of the stories I read (there are twenty-one in all), I was again enticed by the lyricism of the words, although not exactly moved by the characters. To me, they were off-putting, even unsympathetic at times, ranging from the idiosyncratic, the self-righteous, the self-loathing. But that is how Oates evolves her tales, tales that are meant to be unnerving and thought-provoking. She doesnít go for easy characterization, and sometimes that lets keep an emotional distance.

For instance, the self-described ugly narrator in "Ugly," has capitulated to being invisible, at least where her face is concerned, choosing instead to play up her large breasts and bountiful behind as her only assets. She canít see past her flaws and avoids looking into mirrors because whatís the point. And because she is "ugly," she accepts that life doesnít have much to offer her. Therefore, she is satisfied with her low-paying job as a waitress in a cheap waterfront diner where the owner and his cronies often make her the target of their lascivious banter. The only one who truly sees her is another customer, Mr. Cantry, her former high-school math teacher, whom she describes as big, pale with an "odd-shaped head." Sheís drawn to him even as she is repulsed by him. Instead, she crushes on her bullying, lecherous boss, who doesnít see past her "tits and ass." Cantry, in her mind, is a loser, even as he offers her something close to companionship and an ephemeral sort of love. In the end, despite one instance where she stands up for him, she pushes him away because he is just another mirror through which she sees her own ugliness.

More poignant is "The Scarf," a sweeter narrative of a cherished birthday gift bought for the protagonistís mother decades ago. Fifty years later, the scarf is among the vestiges of the motherís life she chooses to give away to her daughter for fear that it will get "lost." Her memory failing, she has already lost the history of the scarf that her then eleven-year-old daughter, the narrator, saved so diligently for, determined to give her mother something that she would never forget.

In the title story, "Faithless," the forty-something narrator Bethany relates the spotted family history of a grandmother who ran off one day in the 30ís, deserting her husband and two young daughters, Connie and Nelia (the latter the narratorís mother) purportedly for a mysterious lover. Try as she will, Bethany cannot glean more than the reminisce of a fateful day seen through the eyes of two very young children, and with the years, those memories remain under the haze of a childís awareness. Bethany isnít satisfied that her grandmother could just leave her children, who were seven and three at the time. Throughout the years, her motherís and auntís details waver, but the one constant is their derision of a faithless woman who abandoned a faithful husband and children, even though they do remember a black eye here and there, and on another occasion, a bloodied mouth. The daughters, even to their deaths, refused to think of a mother who was vilified throughout most of their lives. In the end, Bethany finds the truth behind her grandmotherís desertion. I have to admit that this story led me one way, which made the unsettling ending even more of a surprise.

Faithless is evocative and disturbing and may not suit everyoneís tastes. But it will definitely leave you pondering after youíve put it down.

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