Anybody familiar with the wider world of short fiction will recognize Joyce Carol Oates, and I suspect the name will ring bells even with people who aren’t particularly conversant in the form. If you aren’t familiar, well, here’s a good place to start. It’s a bit dated since a lot of what’s creepy about this story has less impact in a world where you can find out a billion personal details about somebody on the internet, but I think the impact still works pretty well.
This story is, at its fundamental roots, really boring. Bored teenager living boring suburban life stays home, bored, has conversation, story ends. Or, looked at another way, it’s just one more story about a young girl being targeted by the creepy forces of mature masculinity. Or it’s a long info dump followed by a rambling conversation and ending with ambiguity.
Part of the reason Oates get away with it is that her prose is immediately engaging.
She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.
There are some really nifty details packed into this line. We learn she’s vain, we learn that she’s awkward, and we learn that she’s looking to other people to judge herself. This isn’t even a simple using other people’s approbation or lack thereof as her external validation, either. Describing her as “checking other people’s faces” immediately after referencing her glancing into a mirror suggests a similar behavior. The other people are another mirror, and she’s checking her reflection in them. This concept of reflection is really important to the story, and runs straight through it. You don’t even get out of the first paragraph before it comes up again.
Her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.
So Connie isn’t the only one who uses other people as a mirror – Connie is serving as a mirror for her mother and their relationship is hugely shaped by that fact, by the tension and distance it puts between them, despite their fundamental functionality. For anybody looking at the story with an eye toward whether every element is doing work and inclined to find the whole first half pointless setup, this right here is why all that setup is there. We need to understand Connie and the world she’s in and how she interacts with it for the second half of the story to work.
Her heart began to pound and her fingers snatched at her hair, checking it, and she whispered, “Christ. Christ,” wondering how bad she looked.
I rather like this line. She stayed home not just to wash her hair, but to make sure it dried optimally, and her first thought when somebody shows up is to wonder how she looks. This girl is seriously constrained by these externalized perceptions. It’s a very nice reminder because she’s about to encounter a rather predatory mirror.
The driver’s glasses were metallic and mirrored everything in miniature.
Yeah, that line is not there by accident.
This matters, though, because if this were just a random creep, the story here isn’t very interesting. But Arnold’s status as mirror, a mirror showing back to her far more than she gets from most people, makes Connie’s instinct to run away far more than sensible predator-evasion.
Now she remembered him even better, back at the restaurant, and her cheeks warmed at the thought of how she had sucked in her breath just at the moment she passed him—how she must have looked to him.
Oates has layered the traditional male predator narrative with the teen-insecurity/self-loathing to add a whole layer of depth to this that makes the telling fresh. It creates a sense of both wanting Connie to get into the car with Arnold and agreeing that she really ought to just run away. Trapping the reader in that predicament makes Connie’s conflict accessible, even if you aren’t a bored teenage girl in the sixties. We understand what she’s going through because we’re feeling the same pulls – we as readers want to know what’s going on with this guy who knows more than he should, who seems to have supernatural stalking powers, but we sorta feel bad for Connie too because, well, her life kind of sucks.
“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.
All of that leads up to this final line which, given Arnold’s role as mirror, is especially interesting. What does it mean that the mirror has the color of her eyes wrong? Is this a fantasy story and the world she’s wandering into is real, or is she wandering into a metaphor. Either way, what does that mean for Connie – is she escaping her boring life? Wandering into doom? Developing self-understanding? This is a story that is all about the last line, a build up to a change where the point of the story is that there is a change, and what exactly that change is matters less. Neat.
Next: Clockwork Chickadee by Mary Robinette Kowal.
Then, in anticipation of April being a month of schedule madness, the CC is taking a few weeks off. I’ll announce a fresh lineup for what we’re doing a week or so before we get started again. In the mean time, if you run across things you’d like in the lineup, let me know!