Mastiff by Joyce Carol Oates, 2013
The magic trick:
Access to the interior monologues of the two central characters
I suspect this is not a new trick for Oates. I have only read a few of her stories, but each was imbued with the same ability to make the reader feel like an accomplice to the protagonist’s guilt. It’s an unpleasant, if impressive, reading experience.
In “Mastiff,” we meet a man and woman who have only recently begun a relationship. Oates gives us a window into each person’s thoughts about the other, thoughts about the relationship, thoughts about their own personal romantic histories, their hopes, desires, expectations, insecurities. It’s an extensive catalogue of feelings. It also is notable in not having been expressed to the other person in the relationship. Suddenly, the reader has more insight into this relationship than the people in the relationship have about it. That’s a very alluring position for us to be in. It’s also very uncomfortable. Hence the guilt, which pours out in all kinds of confusing directions during the story’s second half after the dramatic plot shift. All of the things left unsaid between the man and woman become very complicated as their roles change and the reader is left bearing the burden. And that’s quite a trick on Oates’s part.
The woman was also lonely and dissatisfied—but primarily with others, not with herself. She’d had several relationships with men since college, but she hadn’t felt much for any of them. Some she had dated simultaneously. And yet she was deeply hurt if a man wasn’t exclusively involved with her. Her father had left the family when she was a child and rarely visited. All her life she’d yearned for that absent man, even as she’d resented him. She’d hated her own vulnerability.