by Joyce Carol Oates
Carroll and Graf, 138 pp., $15.95
“Lurid and melodramatic” is how D.H. Lawrence described Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. “Lurid and melodramatic” is the perfect description for Beasts too; but the real reason the quote is irresistible is that Joyce Carol Oates’s new novella itself is so thickly studded with quotes from D.H. Lawrence. You could call it a ghoulish variation on a Lawrentian theme.
Most of the quotations fall from the lips of Andre Harrow, a charismatic professor of English literature (though, typically, he scorns to use the title). He teaches at Catamount, a classy women’s college in the Berkshires. The milieu and the cast are not unlike those in some of Oates’s earlier novels, just a little bit older in age and sophistication and a little bit up in social class from the high schools in Foxfire and Broke Heart Blues. Only the best students in the Catamount English department are allowed to join Harrow’s elite poetry workshop. He criticizes their poems and recites to them passages “from Blake, Shelley, Whitman, Yeats, and Lawrence, with such fervor you understood that poetry was worth dying for. (Yet Mr. Harrow wasn’t a poet himself, it seemed. We wondered why.)” The bit in parentheses is typical of Oates’s poker-faced irony—the salt that makes swallowing her lavish helpings of lurid melodrama so enjoyable.
Harrow’s choice of writers is meant to tell you something about him, and it does. “Lawrence,” he proclaims to the mostly doting members of his audience, “teaches us that love—sensual, sexual, physical love—is the reason we exist. He detested ‘dutiful’ love—for parents, family, country, God. He was in fact a deeply religious man but he celebrated, not a dead God, but a living Eros.” Harrow might have quoted (but doesn’t in fact) from The White Peacock: “Be a good animal, true to your animal instincts.” He and his wife, Dorcas, live—as far as is possible in their position—according to this precept, which Dorcas puts more brutally. She is a sculptress, and when she has an exhibition at the college art museum, she affixes the following slogan to one of the walls: “WE ARE BEASTS AND THIS IS OUR CONSOLATION.”
Beasts is a thriller, so it wouldn’t be right to tell the plot in detail, but it is more horrific than Oates’s previous tales of adolescent hysteria and campus crime. It’s about sadomasochism, a topic which grows an extra dimension of horror, creepiness, and fascination when it is set in an ultra-respectable environment instead of a brothel; and Oates has made the very most of that fact. The names she gives her characters always tell you a lot about their backgrounds, and the Catamount girls’ parents are obviously a refined, ambitious bunch to have chosen Cassandra, Sybil, Penelope, Marisa, and Dominique. The narrator/heroine is called Gillian, a humbler choice, though genteel enough; but then, heroines are often Cinderellas under another name. Gillian …