Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The New Yorker: "Pumpkin Head" by Joyce Carol Oates

This story has moments that gripped me, but I never quite got over the stumbling beginning. I don’t want to tell Joyce Carol Oates how to write her stories, but her introductory paragraph shouldn’t begin this story. Yes, it’s lovely, and the reference to “crossing-over time” is crucial, but the story begins in October, and that paragraph about what happened in March can wait. (Okay, so I guess I do want to tell JCO how to writer her stories.)
After that, I was intrigued. Hadley is a young widow (just as Oates recently lost her husband), and she’s attracted—for mysterious reasons that relate to her childhood—to Anton, a young post-doc who works at the local Co-op. He has “dropped by”, and she’s not too upset to see him—it seems she might be ready to finally emerge after a long period of mourning—but she is slightly repulsed by Anton. The man is forceful, though, and she doesn’t have the strength to ask him to leave, although she does lie to him feebly. It turns out that he’s had a bad time of it and he’s a bit cracked, like the pumpkin head he’s wearing when she first sees him (it’s a bizarre effort at a Halloween gift). When he goes further and tries to force himself on her, she resists, and eventually he leaves her. She should call the police, but she doesn’t. She goes outside and calls to him, instead.
I understand that she’s lonely, and I can understand her letting a man into her life at this moment, but I do not buy this woman with this man, this man who smells of garbage who has nearly raped her.
January 12, 2009: “Pumpkin Head” by Joyce Carol Oates


Elizabeth Westmark said...

I had difficulty with that first paragraph, as well. At first, I read it carelessly and ended up thinking her husband had only died two days before the incident with Anton. My fault, but after going back and reading it several times, I still agree with your comments.

I also agree that a character like Hadley could have found someone "so ugly he's cute," while not actually annoying, smelly and possibly psychotic.

I'm going to read it again, and see what I missed.

Thanks for your reviews. I am enjoying and learning.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that it's fair to say she calls "to him". Indeed, I read it as just her calling, uncertain but fearfully suspecting, out into the darkness. Oates never said that Hadley called "to him", merely that Hadley "called out". Perhaps the story was not as unbuyable as you first thought?

Enjoy reading your take on all the New Yorker stories.

Clifford Garstang said...

Elizabeth, that's exactly what tripped me up about the opening.

Anon, I agree that Oates hasn't said Hadley necessarily thought she was calling out to Anton, but that's what I'm reading. If she were as horrified by the assault as I think she should have been, she wouldn't be lingering on the porch. She'd bolt the door and call the police. Instead, though, she stands on the porch, sees that there is someone out there, and calls to that person. Most recently it is Anton who has been out there and I think it's reasonable to conclude she thinks he's there.
Maybe you're right that it's not unbuyable, though. Maybe it makes sense for her to want this guy, but I don't think she's that desperate.

Aara said...

I just read this story...and as it is with most New Yorker short stories..Im quite flummoxed - what is the point?

Reading this story, I felt like Hadley was still in some kind of drug-induced stupor. She's quasi-attracted to Anton...but is also repulsed by him. I dont understand why she is unable to ask that he leave once she becomes uneasy with his presence, why she cant hear him muttering, why she stays on the floor after the assault, why she goes out and stands on the porch, or why she seems to be in some sort of dazed state that doesn't let her take charge of the situation. Whats going on? Is that supposed to convey the fact that she's still mourning the death of her husband?

Also, with a story like this, am I the only one missing the point? Should I even be looking for a point when I read New Yorker's short stories? I often read these stories - they're so engaging and interesting when they begin and then they just abruptly end. And I dont understand the point for their existence. What is this story supposed to convey? Am I just reading it without actually understanding it? Should I be looking for something different? Are short stories only meant for folks with some prior knowledge of literature and writing styles? I dont get it!!!

Looking for some guidance here! What do I look for when I read a short story so I wont feel like Im missing the point when it ends?

Clifford Garstang said...

With this story, I'm fairly sure you aren't the only one missing the point, if there even is a point.

One way of approaching a short story--I'm no expert, just a struggling writer--is to ask how the main character has changed, or could have changed, as a result of the events of the story. That is, is s/he in a different place at the end than at the beginning and do the events make that change plausible? In this story I see the change in Hadley, from lonely to desperate, but I don't feel that it's plausible given the revolting Anton. So my objection to this story is on plausibility grounds. Note that Anonymous above doesn't agree with my interpretation of the ending, and that reader may well be right. One thing I'd want to see here is a little more clarity. Not perfect clarity, but a little something more to grasp.

Thanks for visiting!

Mark Richardson said...

Wow! Thank you for all the comments. It is very hard to understand what is going on here. Does the pumpkin head mean something? Very odd. I found her prose very enjoyable, though.

Mark Richardson said...

I also read elsewhere that the Iraq was mention in the story shouldn't be overlooked. Maybe there is something there, but I don't see it...

Clifford Garstang said...

Mark, midway through we get the following, and it's interesting, but I don't see the greater meaning, unless we're meant to conclude that Anton is making a preemptive strike:

"With a snort of derision, Anton said, “A tolerant nation—is it? Such ‘tolerance’ as swallows up everything and what it cannot it makes of an enemy.”

“Enemy? What do you mean?”

“It makes of war. First is declared the enemy, then the war.”

Anton laughed, baring his teeth. Chunky yellow teeth they were, and the gums pale pink. Seeing how Hadley stared at him, he said, in a voice heavy with sarcasm, “First, there is the ‘tolerance’—then the ‘preëmpt strike.’ ”

Hadley’s face filled with the heat of indignation. This was insulting, deliberately so. Anton Kruppev, who’d lived in the United States for years, knew very well the history of the Iraq war, how Americans had been misled, deceived by the Republican leadership. Of course he knew. She opened her mouth to protest, then thought better of it."

angellomike said...

This stream of comments is I realize from 2009, but I just read this story and wanted to chime in. I agree the opening seems misplaced. The story beginning suggests the story is about grief and widowhood and to leave that paragrah in the story should have respectfully resolved the points in that opening and it did not so as a rounded work of art i feel the story is left wanting
But what I got from the title and related themes is that americans stereotype foreigners like anton to the extent that theya are really not visible to us. What we see are they masks created by our uniquely American myopia.

That is a major theme here. How can Hadley empathize with Anton when she does not take him seriously? He is a man in a mask a joke someone to pity who represents a part of the globe that we think wants nothing more than to be like us Americans.