‘Smother’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Oates, Joyce Carol 2005

Smother by Joyce Carol Oates, 2005

The magic trick:

Leaving the ending of the narrative vague but the emotional conclusion definite

This story is a little bit like watching a really, really good episode of “48 Hours Mystery.” It’s dark, tense and more-than-a-little-bit voyeuristic. Now if you’re familiar with that staple of American Saturday-night TV, the other characteristic of the show is that they almost never tie up the loose ends. You twist and turn with the plot for two hours only to be left unfulfilled in the quest for a satisfying conclusion.

On one hand, “Smother” follows the same model. It’s a little vague there at the end. But this is where the magic trick comes in. The plot may not resolve along neat lines. The reader is left to their own interpretations about the validity of the daughter’s story. But really it doesn’t matter, does it? Whether or not her memories are accurate is immaterial to the mother’s fate. The mother-daughter relationship was a disaster before this episode, and these accusations are the final nails in the coffin. So, the story manages to conclude with the plot vague and the emotions definite. And that’s quite a trick on Oates’s part.

The selection:

Alva was in danger, Lydia thought. It had to be drug-related, and it had to be a serious crime.

How she, the mother, was connected, Lydia could not imagine.

Wanting to cry, Please tell me! Don’t torment me.

It was unnerving to think that these strangers glancing about casually at Lydia’s attractive living room flooded with May sunshine, making no comment on it as other visitors would naturally have done, seemingly not very impressed, knew something about Alva, and something about Lydia, that Lydia didn’t know.

Unnerving to think that these men, who’d driven from the Philadelphia area to Bethesda to speak with Lydia, had flown to Carbondale, Illinois, to speak with Alva.


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