Three and half hours after picking it up, I had finished the book. Its brevity shocked me, almost frightened me. Yet the entire story was there. And more than just the story contained within the pages, but an entirely other story. One of the human race and its dark past. Of its desires and hypocrisy and self-loathing.
Before reading Oates for the first time, I considered her merely a feminist writer. After finishing her novella Beasts, I can confirm that to be true. She does not, however, explore femininity in an obtuse way, merely as a strong opposite of masculinity. Instead, it is merely a shade of humanity, or rather, many shades and very complex. In the book and in much of her work, she seems to explore what it is like to be a woman. I say this only having read little of her work and hearing much about it as well. For that reason, I cannot claim to understand her or dissect her work. I can, however, admire it. Also, I want to read more of her. She’s published over one hundred novels and this one, published in 2003, is merely a coin dropped in the fountain for this prolific author. That’s why it amazes me that despite her having written so many books, she has yet to dilute her work with disappointing poor quality.
I encountered her first in my English literature class in a short story called “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” It recounts the story of self-obsessed Connie, who despises her parents and sisters and yearns for more sexual respect. She finds, however, a warped reality of what sexuality is. The short story is a very subtle sort of horror, something that creeps upon you and nags your brain. Beasts works much the same way. The story seems rather innocent until you realize that something about this story, this narrator, this confession…. is very, very wrong.
The twisted ideal of sexuality carries into this work as well. A young college student Gillian falls in love with her narcissistic poetry teacher. She and her friends swoon over him and his artistic French wife. They, however, hold dangerous philosophies that begin to affect the girls. And there is some wickedness brewing between them.
Beyond that, the novel is difficult to explain. From outside, it seems almost just about a silly little girl with a crush on her professor. The implications go much further than that. From page one, Oates has full control. She knows where she wants the story to go and it will go into Hell. And whether you like it or not, you’re going too.
I began reading, merely passively. I admired her prose, which was both simple, elegant, and impossibly complex. Within each sentence is a treasure cove of symbolism and stark, dark beauty. But I feel, if I were to explicate this novel, it would lose its enigma. That is what made me keep reading until the book was finished. Because easily, I could figure out the symbolic meaning of the fires that some secret arson sets throughout the school year or what the female lead might “represent” or why the poetry teacher is so obsessed with D.H. Lawrence and Ovid. I could figure out all those things, but in those ways, we destroy literature.
Oates, I believe, understands more than anyone else that a good piece of literature, a good story, is not meant to be fully understood. In ways, I am perplexed, yet by simply reading the novel, I understand completely. The author, by subtly placing the cues and clues that English teachers so love to point out, does not mean for the story to be an excavation site. Oates does not wish for fiction to be trivialized into meaning. The story, rather, makes a very distinct impression.
Sure, one can discuss how she uses imagery. How each word affects the mood. But instead, we can learn to be complacent that the book does have an effect. It puts me on edge, even now. I sit in the dark and write this and feel a sort of strange horror creep around me. The book is something like horror, but contains no ghosts. No monsters, vampires, or bloody deeds. Only very human characters, in the cruelest of their renditions.
What alarmed me most about the plot was not the fact that it was riddled with sexual abuse, though not evidently. There are passages in which the narrator describes her poetry class. At first, it is a class where girls go to ogle the professor. But soon they fight for his attention. They write the whole truth of their lives: every relationship, every anatomical flaw, every incestuous sexual encounter. They lay all this out in poetry which the professor praises. Yet I noticed that as each poured more of themselves into the poetry, they became less. Small details, that Oates writes, cues this. They became skinnier and less healthy, a bit more deranged. They live only in poetry.
Every single one of these girls becomes a victim of their own infatuations. By the end of the novel, the main protagonist is no longer the sweetly naive girl from the start of the story. She is transformed into a husk of pure obsession and is crazed by her jealousy, rage, and longing.
Even now, I find myself trying to make sense of everything she did in the story that it would have such a great effect on me. Understand, the story itself would seem to me frivolous and pointless if told by anyone other than her. If you were to go read the plot on Wikipedia, you might not see anything special. I doubt it. But when you read the novel, it affects you in a disturbing way. Such is Oates’ gift.
In conclusion, I admire Oates for her subtlety and power. She understands her entire story before it begins. Every word is meticulously chosen to create the atmosphere of the work which might always be compelling while slightly unnerving. Either way, every writer can learn something from her stories. She has mastered the ability to forever confound English teachers by wrapping her stories so tightly with symbolism, with meaning, that they can never truly be unwound. Nor should they ever be.
What is the purpose of discovering the secrets of the universe? We surely cannot ever take them seriously.