Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Beware of Pumpkin Head

Fosco has mentioned before how he feels about New Yorker fiction. Well, he just finished reading Joyce Carol Oates's most recent story in The New Yorker. It's called "Pumpkin Head" and it is not a little bit upsetting.

Fosco enjoys reading a JCO story once or twice a year, but the last few published in The New Yorker have been pretty tame by her standards. For a while, she seemed to be interested in exploring news stories "ripped from the headlines" from a fictional perspective. In my favorite JCO story, she considered obliquely the whole Jim McGreevey saga from the perspective of the young son of a somewhat similar politician. Last year, she wrote another story about the accidental death of college student via a trash chute (based on a case from New Jersey) from the perspective of the student's mother. Both these stories were not explicitly violent--the small violence in them happened "off-camera" as it were.

So Fosco forgot that JCO can write stories taut with a fine-tuned threat of horrific (often sexual) violence that, when it explodes into the horror that was expected, still does not come as a relief. And that's what she's done in "Pumpkin Head"--a story that you know will end badly from the beginning, but that still disconcerts you when it does end badly. In some ways, it's an adult version of Oates's most famous (and justly so) story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Both stories take seriously the threat of male sexuality and its ability to strip away safety and normalcy from everyday life. It's some bad mojo, that's for sure.

If you want to read this story, I would suggest that you do that now and then come back to this post. Hint: this next paragraph will include spoilers.

The most impressive part of this story is the last few sentences:

She stepped outside. She wiped at her mouth, which was still bleeding. She would run back into the house and dial 911. She would report an assault. She would summon help. For she required help, badly; she knew that Anton Kruppev would return. Certainly he would return. On the front walk, she stood gazing toward the road—what she could see of the road in the darkness. There were headlights there. An unmoving vehicle. It was very dark, a winter dark had come upon them. She called out, “Hello? Hello? Who is it?” Headlights on the roadway, where his vehicle was parked.
There are a couple of amazing things about this passage. First, there is the use of the verb "would," which introduces a profound uncertainty (that is partially temporal) into the action. "She would run back to the house and dial 911" can be read several ways:
  • she will objectively do this in the future (in a moment).
  • in her head, she is planning to do this (but may not actually do it).
  • she wants to do this, but knows she will not (as in, "I would that it were so").
The uncertainty here is potent, as is the uncertainty produced by the seeming certainty by the phrases "she knew that Anton Kruppev would return. Certainly he would return." The word "certainly" in the second sentence has the paradoxical effect of calling into question her previous assertion that he will return. Consequently, the sum effect of these sentences is to leave the reader unclear as to whether Hadley will actually phone for help and whether Anton will actually return. This is a powerful and fear-inducing effect: is the story over? Or will it continue after the narration stops?

The second amazing thing about this passage is the oddness of the penultimate sentence. Oddly, Hadley suddenly seems to become confused or disoriented, calling out "Hello? Hello? Who is it?" This seems extremely strange as both the narrator and the reader seem to clearly know who is there (after all, in the next sentence, the narrator refers to "his" vehicle, making it clear that Anton is still nearby). Why do the narrator and the reader suddenly break away from Hadley at this point in the story? Why does she ask questions that she should know the answer to (and that the narrator and reader both know)? This is disorienting.

The third amazing thing here is the final sentence (fragment, actually). In response to Hadley's question, we are presented with no actual action (literally, as there is no verb here), but only an image--and a chilling one at that.

Fosco admires greatly these last lines: they do most of the work of creating the lasting creepiness of this story.

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