cover image Beautiful Days

Beautiful Days

Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco, $26.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-279578-6

Oates (A Book of American Martyrs) toes the line between condemnation of and fascination with her characters in this collection of ethical failures. In part one, the characters’ self-definitions blind them to the pain they cause themselves and each other—as in “Fleuve Bleu,” in which lovers promise complete honesty and deliver needless pain. In the second part, assumptions, biases, and privilege stymie awareness among people of different races, genders, and body types. In “Except You Bless Me,” a white adjunct composition instructor suspects without clear cause that a black student has been sending her hate mail. In the collection’s speculative, fabulist third act, there are clear victims—the only characters readers will find sympathetic. In “Fractal,” a boy becomes separated (both physically and emotionally) from his mother as they tour a fractal museum. In “David Barthelme Saved from Oblivion,” a string of children leads an alcoholic writer away from his favorite liquor store. Throughout the book, the characters speak to themselves at least as often as they speak to each other. The Pushcart-winning “Undocumented Alien” is composed entirely of lab notes by postdocs more concerned with their work conditions than the ethics of their research. In Oates’s narrowly constructed cast of ivory tower intelligentsia, subtle, toxic failings go unchecked. (Feb.)