Judging a Book By Its Cover – The Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates
Written by Gillian Ramos
Well here’s an interesting challenge. The Female of the Species was given to me as a gift this Christmas by a friend who has been following this column since I first started it on my own blog. It was chosen to counter my bad experience with another short story collection about women in the modern world. She absolutely knew that I needed a little Joyce Carol Oates in my life, especially after what we’ll call the Weldon Incident.
Of the books I’ve judged by their covers (for the purposes of this column), few have disappointed (and irritated) me as much as Fay Weldon’s Nothing to Wear and Nowhere to Hide. While I’m typically a huge proponent of women writing about the female experience, I expect there to be a modicum of respect for the topic. As I mentioned in my review of Weldon’s collection, I didn’t feel that respect, and that was an even bigger turn-off than the quality of the storytelling.
After such an unpleasant reading experience, I’m not sure I would have picked up The Female of the Species on my own. Mystery and suspense typically aren’t words that draw me to a book. It looks a little cheesy on the cover and runs the risk of over-promising and under-delivering. Saying things like mystery and suspense upfront leaves the reader open to some disappointment. If I’m being told that I’m about to be teased and thrilled, but then I’m not, there’s going to be a problem.
But this book was a gift from a friend who has never steered me wrong. Sometimes she even knows me a little better than I know myself. The attached card promised this was a lady book with a bite. Talk about truth in advertising – each story has this glorious unsettling quality, you’re drawn in and slightly repulsed in equal measure. Oates’ characters are no more likable than Weldon’s, often they’re similarly selfish or short-sighted, but they’re more credible as human beings.
To read these stories is to embark on a complex relationship with these women. You want to understand them before passing judgement on their actions. There’s got to be some good in there, right?
When they do something awful, you can kind of see where they’re coming from. Does that make me a little bit awful, too? Probably, but we all have our flaws.
My absolute favorite stories were “Doll: A Romance of the Mississippi” and “Madison at Guignol.” The former is the second time Oates adopts a child’s voice in this collection, and I think it’s the superior story. She’s speaking as an older child with more nuanced thoughts, so the conflict in the story feels more deliberate and ultimately more believable.
Not that you don’t have to suspend at least a leeeettle disbelief when you’re reading about a man who sells maybe-sexy-time with his maybe-step-daughter who may or may not be eleven years old (and who definitely has a penchant for collecting gory souvenirs from her clients).
It’s easy to see Doll as a completely amoral brat – she’s bossy, unusually willing to go along with the charade of her being eleven, alarmingly aware of what her time and body are worth – but she’s actually developed her own sense of justice. Sometimes her clients bore her. Sometimes they’re just plain creepy. Her (step?)father handles the money, so why shouldn’t she treat herself for a job well done? As I read, I felt an impulse to help this girl escape her situation, but she definitely doesn’t need anyone’s help. She has everything under control in her own way.
By the end of the story, I couldn’t help but worry more about Doll’s (step?)father; he’s well aware that his influence over Doll is waning and worries that he has created a monster of sorts. He has always indulged her, but the day when she no longer needs his validation is fast-approaching. Given what she does to the clients who displease her, I can’t even imagine what she’d do to this poor old sap.
By contrast, the posh Mrs. G. in “Madison at Guignol” has very little control over her world. Although she sits atop the social ladder, she remains convinced that everyone loathes her. The maids whisper about her; the waiters at her favorite restaurants make fun of what she eats; the other women laugh about her clothing and marriage. This imagined hypercriticism pushes Mrs. G. to her breaking point when she decides to buy a birthday present for her teenage stepdaughter. This present must not only meet the approval of a 15 year old girl, but must upstage the presents every other high society mother has given her teenage daughter, especially the first Mrs. G.
But such perfection comes at a price, and what a price it ends up being.
There’s a small amount of sick satisfaction that comes from the ending of “Madison at Guignol.” We know women like Mrs. G. from the Real Housewives franchise. They don’t inhabit the same kind of reality the rest of us do, where teenagers get pouty over belts that cost hundreds of dollars (or even a reality where anyone can justify spending hundreds of dollars on a belt). Their world is fun in small doses, but quickly descends into #firstworldproblems. The irony of #firstworldproblems is that most of these dilemmas are so minor that giving them a second thought is a privilege in itself. There’s a limit to how much of this privileged whinging a person can take, be it the reader or the lowly service workers in the story.
Mrs. G. does actually treat people like shit. She tells shopkeepers that she thinks they owe her access to better merchandise because she spends a lot of money. At first, this reads like her paranoia shining through, that she’s convinced the sales staff is hiding stuff from her because they don’t like her. In truth, she’s every bit as bad as the women she perceives as being unfairly mean to her, we just don’t get to see it until she’s in a position of power rather than among her peers. Although she believes the maids in her own home make fun of her, we learn that this is their retaliation for her accusing them of theft.
Mrs. G.’s cracks and flaws don’t make her any more sympathetic a character; in fact, they probably make her even less likable because at least the Real Housewives on TV have fun parties and all kinds of zany antics to pass the time. Mrs. G. just floats through the world like it owes her something better, even though she’s already part of the in-crowd.
I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that she had it coming.
In each of these stories, but especially the two I talked about above, these stories allow us to explore the less savory parts of ourselves. In real life, most people would never think to blow away their husbands or dance in front of a strange man for a few minutes (but mostly spend that time channel-surfing on the hotel cable and consider what to collect as a souvenir this time). But what if we could be those girls and women, just for a few minutes? As much as I’d like to think I’m rational, non-violent, not prone to having an affair with a sexy drifter, Joyce Carol Oates has me thinking there’s a good chance I could be wrong.
Maybe it’s only natural.