Joyce Carol Oates is one of those authors I feel like I really should have read by now, but I haven't. It was an easy choice, therefore, when I was deciding which story to read this weekend to pick her story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?". I've decided to work on reading the stories in American Short Story Masterpieces over the course of the rest of the year. There are 36 stories included, so I won't get to all of them, but it is as close as I can come to any sort of 'guided' reading plan. Although I love reading stories at random (and will still also do that occasionally), I feel like there are probably well-known stories that I should also be reading.
As this anthology only has contemporary American authors, I'll also be looking for the equivalent for international fiction. According to the blurb:
"This highly acclaimed collection of short stories by American writers contains only the best literary art of the past four decades. With a bias towards realism, editors Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks selected fiction that 'tells a story'--and tells it with a masterful handling of language, situation, and insight."
So this should be the best of the best. As with any anthology, I know it is leaving other authors and sorts of stories out. Still, I think it is a good starting place.
Joyce Carol Oates is called the "Dark Lady of American Letters" and I've seen her name connected with the term Gothic, which gives a tiny indication of what I'm in for when reading her work. She is a prolific writer with more than forty novels, countless short stories, poetry, plays, criticism and even YA novels to her name. She is also a professor at Princeton University and edits a literary magazine. Imagine taking a writing course from her! I think you'd have to be very confident or very serious about your studies.
"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" was written in 1966 and was dedicated to Bob Dylan. Apparently she was inspired to write the story in part after listening to Dylan's song, It's All Over Now, Baby Blue. She also based the story on three murders committed in Tucson, Arizona by Charles Schmid, the story being profiled in Life magazine that year. I read that the story drew somewhat heavily on the tumultuous history of the times, so I tried to keep that era in mind when reading the story. Really, though it's a story that could just as easily have occurred today as forty years ago.
Connie is an average fifteen-year-old high school student. She's pretty and likes to hang out with her friends, trying to catch the attention of the good looking boys. "She had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people's faces to make sure her own was all right." Her mother despairs of her and berates her self-absorption, comparing her to her older, less attractive but more reliable sister. While her parents think she is going to the movies or the mall with her girlfriends, instead they head across the highway to the drive-in where the older kids hang out. Often she'll go off with a boy to his car, and you're not quite sure what happens there. Her actions are obviously observed by others, even if her family has no idea what she's up to.
When her family leaves to go to a barbecue one Sunday, she stays home alone washing her hair, listening to the radio and daydreaming. Soon she hears a car pulling up the gravel driveway. There's a confident rap on the door, as though someone was expected. At first Connie doesn't recognize the two boys. They're in an open jalopy painted gold with 'Arnold Friend' stenciled in the paint. Connie's first concern is that she looks okay. There's something sinister about the boys, however, not least that they aren't boys at all, but men. While the man in the car seems not the least interested, Arnold Friend is quite insistent that he is here for Connie to take her on a date. What starts out as a bit of a flirtation soon turns sinister.
It's an unsettling story to read. Most of the story concerns Connie alone in the house, her family not expected back for hours. Arnold Friend is anything but a friend. Strangely he knows all about Connie and her family. His manner might have started out friendly, but it soon becomes threatening and you soon feel yourself alone in that house. The ending is not clear, but it's easy enough to imagine what might happen. You're in Connie's head after all, seeing what she's seeing. Very creepy.
You can read the story online here.