BY KEITH MEATTO
In the latest macabre, morbid, and masterful collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, one thing is clear: being a woman is hell, whether you’re a Hollywood starlet or a Jersey suburbanite, a teenager, a mother, a wife, a divorcee, or a widow. Throughout the book, female characters suffer relentlessly from betrayal, abandonment, neglect, trauma, and abuse, while their male counterparts are at best negligent, oblivious, and insensitive, and at worst lecherous, sadistic, and deadly. As a critique of gender relations wrapped in literary horror, Black Dahlia & White Rose fulfills what the Roman lyric poet Horace called the ideal of drama: to educate and delight.
With Black Dahlia, Oates continues the central preoccupation of a prolific career that spans more than 50 years and 100 books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama: the outer and inner lives of women in distress. Her widely anthologized short story, “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?” concerns a teenage girl who is abducted by an older man. Her most popular novel, We Were the Mulvaneys, centers on a rape at a high school prom. In the new book, the title story’s “White Rose” is none other than the future Marilyn Monroe, also the subject of the novel Blonde (2000), whom Oates pairs with “Black Dahlia,” a.k.a. Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress whose sensational murder is perhaps best known from James Ellroy’s 1987 novel The Black Dahlia (1987). In context, the floral epithets imply a sinister and shallow culture that demands women to be glamorous, glittering objects at the expense of their dignity, if not their lives.
While the female characters in Black Dahlia are often victims, they are rarely passive. Throughout, women challenge oppression in word and deed. In “Deceit,” a single mother asks a school therapist why America has national holidays for great men, but none for great women like Eleanor Roosevelt, Emily Dickinson, or Amelia Earhart. In “Roma!” a woman on vacation in Rome asks why there is no female equivalent to a statue by Michelangelo. In “Spotted Hyenas: A Love Story” reveals that the titular animals are among the animal kingdom’s matriarchal species. And in one of the book’s most lush, lyrical, and gruesome moments, a woman kills her husband, a scene that Oates renders as a happy ending to romantic fantasy.
Whatever her subject matter, Oates is a master of narrative and craft. The stories in Black Dahlia are meticulous plotted and offer a object lesson in the art of suspense. (Beyond her prolific output under her own name, Oates has written many mystery novels under the pseudonyms “Rosamond Smith” and “Lauren Kelly.”) Each story quickly establishes the possibility of a central calamity and then gradually ratchets up the tension, anxiety, and dread, until the climactic moment and subsequent catharsis. These stories practically force you to hold your breath Oates gives you permission to exhale. Perhaps aware of the reader’s need for oxygen, Oates intersperses eight long stories with three shorter ones; while the latter lack the heft of the former and seem more like writing exercises than full-fledged stories, they serve a useful function as as palate cleansers
Indeed, one of the many pleasures of Black Dahlia is how well the stories cohere as a collection. The book literally starts and ends with a murder, with plenty of murders and suspicious deaths in between. Along the way, Oates juxtaposes stories with similar subjects: a pair of stories about teenagers, a pair about fathers, a pair about unhappy marriages, and a pair set in prison. Elsewhere, the coherence is thematic, as in a story about a bird stuck in Newark Airport precedes a story about a woman who yearns to escape her husband.
Not all the women in Black Dahlia overcome their lot; some literally die trying, a feat that Oates implies is both a tragedy and a triumph. In a moment of reflection, one female character muses: “A woman more than a man is likely to believe in purpose in life, she must believe that she herself has some purpose –otherwise, how to endure?” In this view, suffering, for all its costs, is a source of depth and a source of strength.
Keith Meatto is Editor in Chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. Had he read it earlier, Black Dahlia & White Rose would have made The 30 Best Books of 2012. He is currently reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and Assholes: A Theory.