Slips of the Tongue: J.C. Oates Connects to the Solar Plexus


As in her 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates captures the destruction caused by withheld truth in her new collection, I Am No One You Know. Unlike Mulvaneys‘ slow reveal, the shorter form allows the author little setup time, and her prose hits like a punch to the solar plexus. In “Curly Red,” a once adored daughter looks back on a slip of the tongue that ripped her family apart. Consumed by guilt, she sees only in hindsight the damage her revelation has done to her: “Nobody starts out thinking, as a kid, he’s going to wind up an alcoholic or a junkie.” In “The Girl With the Blackened Eye,” the lone survivor of a serial killer wonders exactly what motivated him to spare her life, and in “Happiness,” two sisters’ Rashomon-esque recollection of a horrific murder leaves both with an impression of the other as ambiguous as the incident itself.

With the exception of the clunky ode to liberal guilt “In Hiding,” in which a well-known white female poet keeps secret an epistolary relationship with an African American inmate, No One artfully and uncomfortably examines the power of one’s inner voice—the one no one can, or is supposed to, hear. When a man extends help to a teenager in “Cumberland Breakdown,” he cannot know how close that boy’s grief came to becoming vengeful rage. In the best piece, the heartbreaking “Aiding and Abetting,” a husband’s rare moment of ugliness toward his unstable brother-in-law brings tragedy; Oates shows the devastation a person’s unedited impulses can cause outside the owner’s mind. Although cognitive dissonance precludes full awareness of this, No One shows how irrevocably thoughts and actions change during the editing process between conception and fruition, pushing the reader into the raw first drafts of the human psyche.