‘How I Contemplated The World From The Detroit House Of Correction And Began My Life Over Again’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Oates, Joyce Carol 1969

How I Contemplated The World From The Detroit House Of Correction And Began My Life Over Again by Joyce Carol Oates, 1969

The magic trick:

Using an unorthodox, scattered format to gradually and hauntingly reveal the nature of Simon’s character the story

I don’t really like the whole 1960s “Let’s break down the artform and rewrite the rules!” thing. William Gass? No thanks. Robert Coover? OK, I actually really love Robert Coover. But back to my point. Oates uses what strikes me as a very “of its time” structure here in this story, and I’m not sure it works.

She separates the story into different headings, constructing it like loose notes for a school assignment. And that’s fine. It is jarring to read about such adult topics as sexual abuse and heroin use through such a naïve, student narrative voice. I’m just not sure the super-stylized structure was necessary.

That being said, the slow revelation of Simon’s character is remarkable. His evil oozes out with every recollection from the narrator. The details get progressively seedier, the scenes progressively more terrifying. And that (minus the story’s oh-so-60s structure) is quite a trick on Oates’s part.

The selection:

5. Simon. In this city the weather changes abruptly, so Simon’s weather changes abruptly. He sleeps through the afternoon. He sleeps through the morning. Rising, he gropes around for something to get him going, for a cigarette or a pill to drive him out to the street, where the temperature is hovering around 35º. Why doesn’t it drop? Why, why doesn’t the cold clean air come down from Canada; will he have to go up into Canada to get it? Will he have to leave the Country of his Birth and sink into Canada’s frosty fields…? Will the F.B.I. (which he dreams about constantly) chase him over the Canadian border on foot, hounded out in a blizzard of broken glass and horns…?


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