Sourland: A Land of Sour Situations

By Kristen Scarlett

You are recently widowed, lonely and isolated in your empty home. What
do you do when a young microbiologist who works at a grocery store shows up to
your house wearing a pumpkin on his head? You invite him in for wine, of course.
These are the types of decisions the characters of Sourland make that land them
in terrible trouble. This intriguing and often experimental collection of short
stories by Joyce Carol Oates offers thought-provoking insight into the nature and
effects of grief, self-destruction, vulnerability, and loss.

This collection might be difficult to read all at once; it can be challenging
to stomach the brutality. However, with a mind open to expansion in the face of
language that might be a little too descriptive (think romantic novel fused with
horror story), this collection offers fascinating insight into the ideas of gender
roles and what people are capable of in their most vulnerable moments. Often poor
decisions, weakness, or innocence on behalf of the main character (generally a woman),
leads them into horrifying situations.

The third story in Sourland, “Babysitter,” epitomizes the themes in this
collection. The story opens with a housewife experiencing typical, mundane suburban
life. She clearly feels bored and repressed. Oates writes, “Suburban life: each calendar
day is a securely barred window.” However, her main complaint is that her husband – a
powerful and respected man – is having affairs. A repeated theme throughout Sourland,
the housewife (only referred to as “she” or “Mommy”) feels that there is an imbalance in
their relationship. “In all marriages there is the imbalance: one who loves more than the
other. One who licks the wounds in secret, the rust-taste of blood.” She seeks to balance
the scales via an affair of her own. She meets a man (whose name she doesn’t know) in a
hotel outside of her suburban neighborhood. What follows can only be described as a brutal
near-rape. Yet, after choking her nearly to death, he releases her and for that, she falls
in love with him. “His thumbs released their pressure on her arteries, the relief was
immediate and enormous. Breath rushed into her lungs, she could have wept with gratitude.
The wish to live flooded into her, she adored this man who gave her back her life.” After
this horrible experience, covered in welts and bruises, it would seem she actually feels
satisfied. “She’d had her revenge, then! She would love her husband less desperately now,
she knew herself equal to him.”

A standout story among such horror and loss is “Amputee.” Jane Erdley is one of
the strongest female characters in this collection, though, ironically, both her legs
were amputated after her drunken father crashed their car. What is particularly fascinating
about this story is how Jane uses her sexuality to assert some kind of power or dominance
over her world. She is extremely proficient in taking care of herself and getting around
with prosthetic legs and crutches (she lives alone), but still people offer unsolicited
assistance and rude (or worse, subtle) stares. When she meets a married man with an
apparent fetish for amputees, she uses his love for her as some kind of power trip. She
says, “For to be loved is to bask in your power, like a coiled snake sunning itself on a
rock. To love is weakness. The weakness must be overcome.”

My favorite story in Sourland is “Bitch” because of its experimental form. The
five-page story is entirely one paragraph from the stream-of-consciousness perspective
of “Poppy,” a woman whose estranged father is dying in the hospital. The conflict of this
story is essentially that the woman wants to be by her father’s side, yet is unsure of how
exactly to be there for him because he never loved her. She doesn’t know how to handle the
sudden affection she receives from him. “He was saying, You are my only hope. You will live
on. I will live in you, my only hope. My beautiful daughter. Only you. She was terrified by
such words.” One style choice I loved in this story was the repetition, which might be
distracting, except that it creates a wonderful rhythm and makes for quick reading. “Her
father had rarely stepped into hospitals in his former life. Her father had to be taken by
ambulance to this hospital. Her father had not returned from the hospital. Her father began
to call her Poppy in the hospital.”

Though Sourland offers some incredible characterization and intriguing plots and
motivations, the endings are often abrupt and leave the reader unsatisfied. The endings are
meant to be ambiguous, but instead of feeling appropriately open-ended, they feel unfinished.
However, in an interview for The Story Prize, Joyce Carol Oates says, “Most fascinating to me
are stories like “Pumpkin-Head,” in which we sense that something profound has happened to
both the widow and the young molecular biologist—but neither could probably have said what the
experience was. This seems to me true to our lives, rather more than the shaped structure of
the traditional short story which exudes a definite meaning, or the intellectually engaging
“conceptual” story—in which characters are subordinate to the predominant idea.” Essentially,
she is interested in real-to-life emotions and revelations that are so complex that there may
not be an intelligible meaning. That she can create these indescribable feelings and themes
speaks to her skill as a writer.

To understand why Joyce Carol Oates chose these stories for Sourland, it’s important to
know that her husband died two years prior to the publication of this book. Framed by the
stories “Pumpkin-Head” and “Sourland,” which both explore the lives of the recently widowed,
and several stories in between that involve sudden hospitalizations, this collection really
makes sense in the context. Particularly as someone who is interested in diving deep into the
often dark emotional motivations of characters (and what results from that), I highly recommend
this book. As a writer, the most valuable thing this collection has to offer is incredibly
detailed and intriguing (though sometimes one-dimensional) characters. Of course, this is in
addition to moments of beautiful prose and stories that will have you on the edge of your seat.

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