‘The Swimmers’ by Joyce Carol Oates

The Swimmers by Joyce Carol Oates, 1991

The magic trick:

The scene with Joan Lunt and the narrator

I really like this story. Oates is just so good. So very good. And consistent too. I’m not sure she’s ever written a bad story, and that’s saying something because she’s written 2,578 stories. Or something close to that.

“The Swimmers” tells the story of a man’s relationship with the new woman in town – all from the point of view of that man’s young niece. It’s an interesting choice for narrator. The choice becomes even more interesting when the story’s focus shifts briefly and puts the spotlight on the niece. She recalls that as a girl she once spent an afternoon with Joan Lunt – her uncle’s girlfriend. It’s an odd scene, blending sweet with ominous. Quickly, the story returns to the details of the adults’ romantic relationship, but the detour is significant. It personalizes the story somehow. It makes Joan’s character more vulnerable and tender. It makes the niece’s narration more heartfelt and less journalistic. And that’s quite a trick on Oates’s part.

The selection:

So we walked outside into the snow-glaring windy sunshine, and she said, “Are you going in this direction? Good, let’s walk together.” She addressed me as if I were much younger than I was, and her manner was nervous, quick, alert. As we walked up Main Street she asked questions of me of a kind she’d never asked before, about my family, about my “interests,” about school, not listening to the answers and offering no information about herself. At the corner of Chambers and Main she asked eagerly would I like to come back to her apartment to visit for a few minutes, and though out of shyness I wanted to say No, thank you, I said yes instead because it was clear that Joan Lunt was frightened about something, and I didn’t want to leave her.

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