cover image Zero Sum: Stories

Zero Sum: Stories

Joyce Carol Oates. Knopf, $29 (272p) ISBN 978-0-593-53586-8

Oates (Blonde) exploits the relentless and unforgiving natures of her characters in this captivating collection. The “sulky-shy” philosophy student at the center of the title story obsesses over her married professor, whose unexpected betrayal drives the plot into bonkers territory. In the brilliant and harrowing “Mr. Stickum,” a gang of high school girls lures a series of would-be child abusers via anonymous ads, then capture and torture them. In “Take Me, I Am Free,” the briefest but no less haunting entry, a first-time mother rejects her role by continually placing her four-year-old daughter outside with the garbage for curb pickup, even when it’s raining. The longest story, “The Suicide,” enumerates a writer’s various plans for his death, each laid out with meticulous details. Oates closes out with a series of apocalyptic and speculative works, most notably “Marthe: A Referendum,” about the last surviving member of an artificially produced primate species who’s kept in an induced coma in 2169, waiting on the outcome of a vote on whether to keep her alive. Humanity in all its devilishness is on vibrant display in these short and potent flashes of life in bleak corners. Readers will be spellbound. Agent: Warren Frazier, John Hawkins & Assoc. (July)