Skip to main content

Beautiful Days: Stories

Review

Beautiful Days: Stories

Joyce Carol Oates has been entertaining readers for over half a century with experimental fiction that has consistently changed over the years, but the subject matter is constant: individuals whose lives inevitably go down a road of self-destruction, and everyday life mixed in with the brutality and evil of other human beings. She delves into this once again with BEAUTIFUL DAYS, an 11-piece short story collection with one of its works, “Undocumented Alien,” winning the 2017 Pushcart Prize.

The stories are split into two sections somewhat arbitrarily, but it allows for respite after three are placed one after another about the dilemmas surrounding bitter academics. During most of the stories in the first section, how the characters define themselves distract from the pain they cause to the people around them, most notably in “Fleuve Bleu,” in which a couple’s honesty towards one another is also a source of unnecessary pain.

"BEAUTIFUL DAYS is a collection in which the failings of these carefully constructed characters’ toxic attitudes go unchecked, but at a time when perspective and human empathy have become muddled, it reflects the world of today."

“Except You Bless Me” adds another dimension to this section, where assumptions and bias prevent understanding of different genders and race. In this story, which leans on the edge of being distasteful for the sake of provocation, a white female instructor, without much reason, suspects that an African-American student has been sending her hate mail. One particular moment comes to mind when the “(white, woman) instructor” remarks that she “remembers girls like Larissa Wikawaaya from grade school, high school. Physically belligerent, eyes snatching at mine in locker rooms, restrooms. Places where adults could not protect a girl like me,” reminding the reader that she is a “(white, woman) instructor,” stereotyping the student at every turn.

The second section allows for more variety. Characters here are easier for readers to sympathize with, making for more identifiable victims. A highlight is “Fractal,” in which a boy obsessed with fractals and architectural design explores a museum with his mother as he becomes physically and emotionally detached from her. The mother struggles with “feeling a wave of something like panic, fear. That the child who was her child yet might acquire a perspective from which he could view her as dispassionately as he viewed the interiors of houses.”

“Undocumented Alien,” on the other hand, is an overly long short story about a Nigerian immigrant who becomes a subject of neurological manipulation, composed by the lab notes of postdocs who act less concerned with the research they are conducting and more so with their work conditions. The piece is one that tries to desperately fit into the war against alternative facts, but the amount of detail Oates presents drags it down.

In the end, BEAUTIFUL DAYS is a collection in which the failings of these carefully constructed characters’ toxic attitudes go unchecked, but at a time when perspective and human empathy have become muddled, it reflects the world of today. A mixed bag of Chekhovian influence, bitterness and isolation, the book stays on the oddly satisfying, familiar paths that readers of Oates would love, but the characters are not free to go outside of the confines of the story structure or find their own haunted motivations.

Reviewed by Gabriella Mayer on March 9, 2018

Beautiful Days: Stories
by Joyce Carol Oates

  • Publication Date: February 6, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062795783
  • ISBN-13: 9780062795786