Friday, June 20, 2014

Stories to Set Your Mind at Unease: The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates

The "tales of mystery and suspense" in Joyce Carol Oates' The Museum of Dr. Moses (2007) are sneaky little things.  The horror comes in on cat's paws, barely noticeable.

The full impact doesn't hit until a few hours or days or even weeks after you have set the book aside and gone on to cheerier things: whistling happy Broadway show tunes, picking daisies in a sun-drenched field, or eating a heavenly slice of lemon-meringue pie.  Then, as your mind drifts back to the stories and you start to think about the sub-surface tension or picture some of those indelible images, then and only then does it smack you.  BAM!  You might even drop your fork as the lemon pie goes sour on your tongue.

As she has done in earlier collections like The Female of the Species, Oates builds the tension slowly, carefully, then turns everything on its head in one sharp Moment of Startle.  Think of it as a dull knife pressing into your forearm, pressing, pressing, pressing, until finally the skin succumbs, breaks with a pop! and you are sprayed with arterial blood--something you knew was there but never expected to see.  That's how Oates leaps out at you: you suspected she was crouched behind the corner, but when it happens--that turn of the story--you still jump and give a little hiccup of a scream.

Take the brilliant short opening story, "Hi!  How Ya Doin!" in which a "good-looking husky guy, six foot four, in late twenties or early thirties" continuously jogs through the story, approaching other runners with the "loud aggressive-friendly greeting Hi!  How ya doin!"  The story is little more than this rude runner calling out his greeting to others, but it builds and builds in intensity until you just know something is going to happen.  The Moment of Startle.  It's only when you reach the end of the story that you realize the entire thing has been one long sentence.

"Hi!  How Ya Doin!" is a good introduction to the other nine stories in the collection.  Here, you'll meet a father who suspects (but can't be certain) his son is fabricating his confession of a horrific crime, children of a serial killer who try to make sense of his crimes, and a woman who plans to leave her husband coming home to find--well, I won't tell you what she finds, but trust me, you'll want to be plucking a lot of daisies after reading "Valentine, July Heat Wave."

Throughout The Museum of Dr. Moses, Oates shows us the dark, awful things which can result from the rough collision of psyches, primarily between men and women.  Predators abound and there are seldom any moments where characters have a complete sense of security.

The title story masterfully builds a feeling of dread as a grown woman wonders if she should rescue her mother from the clutches of her new husband, Dr. Moses, who owns and operates a museum for "the history of medical arts" in upstate New York.  As the daughter walks through the second-rate museum, she comes across the stuff of nightmares: "a quart-sized bottle containing a shriveled, darkly discolored fishlike thing floating in murky liquid, apparently headless, with rudimentary arms and legs and something--a head? a heart?--pushing out of its chest cavity."  Things only get worse from that point on.  The museum, it turns out, is a front for Dr. Moses' more sinister purposes.  All that's needed is a creaky door and a black cat jumping out of a dark corner and the story is ready for the Saturday Night Fright Fest.

Violence hovers at the edges of the page throughout the book, lurking like a patient, unblinking panther, then is unleashed with a sudden explosion of bloody blows.  Or not.  One of Oates' best talents is knowing that sometimes just the hint of a promise is enough to ratchet up the tension.  In "The Man Who Fought Roland LaStarza," for instance, the narrator, the daughter of a man who was friends with the eponymous boxer, describes how she saw the hard-drinking Irish adults in her life:
Our fathers were to us their bodies. Their male bodies. So tall, so massive-seeming, like horses magnificent and dangerous, unpredictable. They were men who drank, weekends. At such times we knew to recognize the slurred voice, the flare of white in the eye sudden as a lighted match, nostrils quivering like those of a horse about to bite or kick...
There will be blood, of course.  What's a boxing story without blood?  Here, it splatters "like raindrops onto the referee's white shirt" during a title fight.  Yet, we must wait nearly the entire length of the story for the visceral pay-off.  Oates keeps us clenching the book every word of the way.

Later in that story, she writes: "Size has nothing to do with boxing skills.  You're born with the instinct or you are not.  You're born with a knockout punch or you are not."  Joyce Carol Oates was unquestionably born with a knockout punch.  These stories will send you to the mat.

A version of this review originally appeared at January Magazine.

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