If there's a personal silver lining to Donald Trump's election, it's that now that my fellow Americans have confirmed my suspicion that they consider me worthless and worth less because I am crippled and poor, and that nothing will ever change those assumptions, I am free to do whatever I damn well please. After all, if they're going to judge me and find me wanting before I open my mouth, why shouldn't I write truckloads of angst and porn or angsty porn? Why not slavefic or siblingcest or threesomes or dubcon? Why not twisted emotional dynamics? If I'm irrelevant, I might as well enjoy myself before I'm left to starve by those oh-so-compassionate conservatives?

I finished the last two stories in The Corn Maiden.. I'm ambivalent. They were superbly written, and many times, I found myself stopping to admire a certain sentence or flash of imagery. Oates has the remarkable ability to create lush sentences with an economy of words, and her images are so simple, yet so apt. In "Holes in the Head," I was struck by her comparison of a flap of plastic trash bag poking out of a trunk to the black of a woman's silk slip. So simple and so beautiful, and so macabre, given the gruesome context.

And yet, for all the incongruous beauty of the portraits she paints, I was often irritated by the self-satisfaction wafting from the pages. The protagonist of "Helping Hands" made my skin crawl. Helene the grieving widow, so sympathetic at the outset, when she's muddling through the days after her husband's death, gradually reveals herself to be a rich, oblivious misery tourist who sees Nicolas, the disabled veteran, not as a person in his own right, but a reclamation project to be molded and polished into a companion to serve her purposes, a charity project to make her feel better about herself. She seems to have a condescending disability fetish, though to be fair to the character, I suspect that's Oates bleeding into her work; disability as alien Other is a pervasive theme in her work, as is her intrusive obsession with the U.S.' myriad wars during the past twenty-five years. This latter hobbyhorse is so inexpertly shoehorned into the events of "Holes in the Head" as to be obnoxious.

But I digress. Helene is your typically self-involved rich widow, but Nicolas Zelinski, the veteran she so desperately wants to improve, is an antiwar activist's dream of patchwork stereotypes. A vet with PTSD, maimed limbs, alcoholism, and no future prospects. Neither of them is appealing, and both boast repugnant moral failings. I'm still not sure precisely where my sympathies are supposed to fall. With Helene, the spoiled widow who reassures herself she's not racist as she nervously eyes the black veteran who comes with Nicolas on a house call, but immediately blames him when she enters the bathroom they've both used and finds it in disarray? Or Nicolas, the vet who might've gone on living a pedestrian life if she hadn't persisted in being a savior he didn't want? In the end, she opts to make Nicolas a terrible bogeyman who comes in the night to do unconscionable things, like as not in an attempt to pontificate on how war makes monsters of us all and blah, blah, blah. The moralizing was crass and swamped the story, which petered to a squalid conclusion and said a great deal of nothing.

Overall, a solid collection, and I can't recommend "The Corn Maiden" enough, but Oates trips over her soapbox more than once in the later stories.


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