‘Lovely, Dark, Deep,’’ a collection of 13 stories by Joyce Carol Oates, comes shrouded in controversy. In November 2013, Harpers published the titular story, which depicts an elderly Robert Frost as a viciously competitive boor, an apologist for racism and imperialism who trumpets the supremacy of “the Caucasian civilization,” a horrendous father (his son’s suicide and his daughter’s institutionalization are both attributed to his cruel treatment), and a lascivious lout who makes numerous “lewd remarks” to his younger, female interlocutor. Frost family members and scholars erupted in outrage. Biographer Jay Parini spoke for the majority when he told The New York Times: “The idea of Frost as a jealous, mean-spirited, misogynist career-builder is nothing short of nuts.”
The phrase “lovely, dark, deep” is from Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”; it’s an apt title for a collection of American gothic tales. But here it’s an unfortunate choice given that the story itself, which pits a bellicose Frost against insidious interviewer Evangeline Fife, is an overwrought and frankly laughable mess. Oates has defended herself in two ways: In the story, she appends a footnote declaring it to be “a work of fiction, though based upon (selected) historical research”; and post-publication, she has pointed out that Fife, who resolves “to steal the poet’s soul,” is herself the primary object of criticism. In short, the story is either inventive, satirical, or both. But the defenses simply don’t withstand scrutiny. Oates depends for her “research” on an old and now discredited biography by a disgruntled former protégé of the poet. More crucially, the irony necessary for satire is nowhere evident. Oates’s Frost actually says all the horrendous things that Fife charges him with — there’s no sense that the account has been slanted by her designs. The result is caricature rather than interpretation and weirdly naive rather than ironic.
The preoccupations of “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” cartoonish in that story, pervade the entire volume, whose stories range much more widely in quality than did the four excellent novellas in Oates’s last, taut collection, “Evil Eye.’’ The thrill of gaining access to an area “cordoned off as private” versus the terror of having one’s own privacy violated, the split between public self and “secret, sick self,” the insecurities and ambitions of youth and the indignities of aging, the simultaneous allure and threat of intimacy, controlling egomania of successful (usually older) men, the adulation or revenge of disaffected (usually younger) women are leitmotifs. Secrets (a cancer diagnosis, a long-ago love affair, a pregnancy/abortion, a tattoo, a drug habit, paternity) are fiercely guarded, but inevitably secrecy results not in immunity and safety but rather in shame and disaster.
“Mastiff,” first published in The New Yorker, will be terrifying for anyone who has ever eyed large dogs askance and deftly depicts how shared trauma and an encounter with the monstrous can create intimacy and deepen connection for the insecurely attached. In “A Book of Martyrs,” a different kind of violent encounter drives another tenuously connected couple apart. “The Disappearing” describes a wife’s fears that her husband’s gradual divestment of his possessions means he is also leaving her, but one wonders whether it is she who’s really disappearing as she becomes increasingly unhinged.
Some stories feel sketchy and undeveloped; others fizzle out in unsatisfying ways. Despite its salacious title and prominent place as the volume’s opening story, “Sex With Camel,” about a teenage boy’s accompanying his grandmother to the hospital, is a rather wan affair. In contrast, “The Jesters,” about a retired couple’s initial fascination with and then horrified recoil from the sounds of their mysterious neighbors, is both exquisitely suspenseful and surprisingly profound, and ends in spectacularly spooky fashion. “Things Passed On The Way To Oblivion” and “Forked River Roadside Shrine, South Jersey,” about the deaths of ostensibly unappealing young people, are especially dazzling feats of narrative ingenuity and control: Here Oates is at her empathetic best.
The novella that closes the volume, “Patricide,” functions as a counter-point to the Frost story, and shows by its incisiveness what the other lacked in insight. Another eminent and aging male writer is brought down by a younger woman, but this time it’s a novelist felled by his own daughter, who’s thrown into a jealous panic by her father’s proposal to an adoring graduate student. Similarly about the discrepancy between a vulnerable, flawed private man and his exalted public image, “Patricide” is everything “Lovely, Dark, Deep” is not: witty, suspenseful, smart, and full of nuanced, believable characters. At one point, the daughter observes: “Living with a genius, you come to realize: the ‘genius’ is hidden from you, somewhere inside the deeply flawed if loveable and mortal person.” It is just this sense of subtle humanity, rendered with exacting compassion, that is missing from the titular story, and that brings the best of this collection’s stories to life.
Priscilla Gilman is the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’