Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The New Yorker: "I.D." by Joyce Carol Oates


I’m not a JCO fan, ordinarily, but in my estimation this is the best story of the year so far.
Lisette Mulvey is in Middle School and her mother may or may not be a blackjack dealer in Atlantic City. Lisette isn’t sure because her mother isn’t terribly reliable. In fact, she’s been gone since sometime the previous week, and Lisette, who is recovering from eye surgery, isn’t doing a great job of taking care of herself—not bathing, she lost the prescription for medication she needs for her eye, she’s hanging out with older boys who give her beer. And then the cops arrive at her classroom and take her away. Lisette at first thinks it’s the beer she drank or the lipsticks she pocketed, but then it is gradually explained by the gentle policewoman that she’s being taken to the morgue to identify a body.
What is brilliant about this story—other than the voice, I mean, which is pitch perfect, it seems to me—is the way the tension is built and ratcheted up and squeezed tighter and tighter as the story progresses. It takes awhile to know that Lisette’s mother is away, and then we learn that there’s a problem with Lisette’s father, and then we learn that the father caused the injury to the eye, and then we learn that the mother has disappeared before and isn’t such a great mother even when she’s around, and then . . . and it goes on building right to the end.
Excellent story!
March 29, 2010: “I.D.” by Joyce Carol Oates

8 comments:

Tricia Dower said...

I LOVE Joyce Carol Oates. Her writing has such energy and she inhabits each character's skin. How she writes so often and brilliantly amazes me. I want to come back as her in another life.

Mark Richardson said...

I agree: a great story. And your comments about why are right on.

I wasn't sure that I believed Lisette, however, when she I.D. the woman. Am I the only one...?

Clifford Garstang said...

Mark, I also have my doubts. Which, for me, makes the story even more interesting.

Pamela said...

Thanks for the tip-off, Cliff. I usually skip the JCO stories, frankly, so I'm glad to know to pay attention to this one.

Heather said...

I thought it was supposed to be her mother - the jacket that looked like her mother's but couldn't be, the woman with the hair that wasn't as nice as her mother's...

I thought Lisette was trying hard to see what she knew she was seeing.

Michael said...

I too thought this story was brilliant. There is such variety and believability in the voice at the same time.

Mark, I felt the same way. I think that, in Lisette's mind at that time, the woman really isn't her mother - but she could be in denial. The fact that the story raises this and other questions (e.g., could Lisette's father have met up with her mother and killed her, after he went AWOL; could Lisette's mother have been working as a prostitute and had a different purse, etc. in that life which Lisette didn't recognize) which it doesn't leave completely answered was one of the reasons the story really absorbed me.

Phern said...

I do not usually like JCO, but this story was so well done. Some writers wrote that they don't believe Lizette...of course you don't. LIzette cannot deal witht he fact that her mother is dead and that her father probably killed her. She would rather get back to class and hang with the girls and pass another lipstick smeared kleenex to her possible boyfriend. The denial of trauma is so layered in this story...first you know that Mom has abandoned Lizette, then she is recovering from facial wounds...inflicted by Dad (who 'didn't mean it'), then J doesn't look at her paper kiss; then the cops come...and it is all downhill from there. The ending is the problem I do have with JCO...no hope,no redemption. Lizette's life, as she approaches adolescence, is ruined.

Jillian said...

I read an interview about this one with JCO and the new yorker. She did say that it is Lisette's mother in the morgue, yet Lisette is in denial. Of course, who wouldn't be? Pulled out of class and taken to see your mothers dead body? Yeah sure I'd be in denial too. JCO also say in the interview "I was probably not thinking of this very likely serial-killer sequence of crimes. In my story, it's likely that the killer is not a serial killer, or even a stranger, but the young protagonist's estranged father." So the killer is most likely Lisettes father after he had been AWOL. JCO goes on mentioning that Lisettes mother is of course not a blackjack dealer. She is a prostitute. Because who would tell their 13 year old that they're a prostitute? She'd be ashamed.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2010/03/this-week-in-fiction-joyce-carol-oates.html#ixzz1bQmtgpFy