“The day of Vladimir Nabokov’s death — July 2, 1977 — is firmly fixed in my memory, for on the following day Donald Barthelme said casually to me, ‘Happy? Nabokov died yesterday, we all move up a notch.’” Now, 46 years and many deaths — including Barthelme’s — later, there are presumably few notches left above Joyce Carol Oates. Over the past six decades, she’s been acclaimed (she won the 1970 National Book Award and received a National Humanities Medal in 2010, among other honors), popular (she appeared on Oprah’s Book Club in 2001), and prolific (she’s published well over a hundred books — as a novelist, short story writer, critic, and poet). The opening quote, with its image of Oates already, almost half a century ago, nearing the summit of American letters, hints at her present gravitas and seniority. Yet the anecdote’s origin, Oates’s substack, also illustrates her rejection of that role. In recent years, as she has become increasingly preeminent, Oates (who was born in 1938) has seemed to relish undermining people’s expectations, dividing her time between feathering her cap with dignified late-career work, such as her 2020 novel, Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. — a magisterial 800-page meditation on race, death, and modern America, named for lines in a Whitman poem — and ruffling feathers with flip remarks on Twitter (“If Mississippians read, Faulkner would be banned.”) Her latest work, the short story collection Zero-Sum, reflects that duality in both title and content. Oates has no further to go, so to keep churning out her best work, she occasionally has to take a few steps back.
“A zero-sum game is one in which there is a winner and there is a loser and the spoils go to the winner and nothing to the loser,” Oates tells us in the title story. (For example, we play marbles, I win; you lose marbles, I gain marbles. Your loss is my gain: zero-sum.) Oates’s opener gives us all the info-dumping, but this antagonistic thought pattern comes up both explicitly and implicitly throughout all the tales. Given the human stakes, these games make for an interesting animus: The equivalencies are inevitably inexact and, usually, the loser is the one writing the equation. In the story “Zero-Sum,” a misfit prodigy (“Brilliant, very young, skipped grades”), now 20 and friendless in the first year of grad school, attempts to avenge an A- (“But I—I am not A minus. I am A.”). At the professor’s end-of-semester party, she tells his daughter, Hertha, that her dad is leading “a growing movement in philosophy — ‘anti-natalism.’ Against bringing children in the world,” and, less creatively, that he’s violent and will “put his hands on you so hard it leaves a bruise.” Hertha is understandably upset, but there is no upside for our heroine: She ends the night not basking in any new vacancy of paternal affection but trying at penance, “kneeling to scrub at the sticky linoleum floor.” Outside of playing marbles for keeps, there are very few real zero-sum games.
We find another anti-natalist in the story “Monstersister,” in which a teenager experiences growing redundancy and resentment within her family as a protrusion from her head gradually grows into, well, a Monstersister. She is disturbed to find that what started out as a “goiter” “began to be confused in the eyes of the family with — me.” The parents dote on their new youngest, “For here was a challenge,” and even Granma insists that the humming of Monstersister’s “thin little snake-tongue” is “Like an angel!” Only our protagonist is immune to her charms, bitterly resenting having to care for her new “blood relative,” with duties that include “Knitting little hats for her, to protect her (exposed) brain.” She can only see their love for Monstersister as coming at her own expense, and in a final bid for attention, she runs away into the recesses of her own home (“Hid in my room. Hid in the basement” / “Refused to answer when Momma called me” / “Avoided my family, who were hateful to me”). Ultimately, in the world of zero-sum games, plus a Monstersister is minus a sister: One day her family quietly moves away and leaves the normie behind. It’s as if Gregor Samsa had woken up next to a bug and began to pack his bags.
This kind of simplicity is where the collection’s conceit works best. If, as has been attributed variously to Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and John Gardner, among others, there are only two plots — a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town — then zero-sum thinking tells us that the stranger needs to kill someone or the car must crash on the trip. The inciting incident perversely assures its own ending, it hangs over the story, creating a new kind of dread in a savvy reader. The plus must be realized in the minus, but how? In “The Baby-Monitor,” it’s the addition of a crib camera into a home and, finally, the subtraction of the baby from that household (“If you would know fear, bring a baby into the world.”). But if zero-sum thinking helps create narrative tension, it also makes the stories fairly ironic. Life never has so little ambiguity; the equivalencies are all, in some way, false. You sympathize, but have to sneer. It’s hard to take suffering seriously when its architect is arithmetic.
The longest, funniest, and most shocking story in the collection, “The Suicide,” tells of the near-schizophrenic spiraling of a suicidal writer. He is a pathetic man, horrible to his wife (and de facto caretaker), and unabashedly in love with his misery. Holding out on his inevitable suicide as he figures how best to integrate a suicide note into his oeuvre (this is the zero-sum angle), we find him “Glowering hunchbacked at his computer, leafing through Finnegans Wake for a jolt of random inspiration, guzzling Diet Cokes one after another.” Why the glowering? Because he is at work on a new masterpiece. What’s the new stuff? He had planned to write a great door-stopper of a novel but seems to be settling for a “Borgesian prose piece that makes him smile, so damned clever, one of the most clever (but harrowing) things he has ever written, sure to be a milestone of post-postmodernist experimentation.” This story is, naturally, a meta one, about his return to writing from various medical interventions. It sounds awful. An excerpt? “The Suicide returns to his work humbled but invigorated. Many times interrupted in his effort to complete a story begun long ago titled ‘The Suicide’ whose first line is: ‘The Suicide returns to his work humbled but invigorated …’” You can imagine how it ends. After all, “He’s the essence of hip, cool. Death is just another cliché. Lends itself to parody. Kitsch.” He has a “three-pronged name” and is “enthralled by the fiction of Thomas Pynchon,” and with “His acrobatic run-on sentences spilling masterfully across and down pages like white-water rapids,” he has written an “interminable piranha-novel.” Oates refers to him only as “The Suicide,” but our protagonist is clearly David Foster Wallace.
Why would Oates pick such a (potentially) sensitive subject? If I were a zero-sum thinker, I’d hazard revenge: In a book review, Wallace once grouped Oates in with several other eminent writers who “I feel like I have to admit are literarily important but whose stuff I don’t think is very good.” Well, it’s 30 years later, and Oates seems ready to tell the world she does not think his stuff was very good. His prose: “It was an haute-druggy voice. It was a voice so intent upon repudiating ‘poetry’ — ‘musical speech’ — ‘vanilla syntax’ — ‘linear chronology’ — that its effect, upon a sensitive ear, was akin to broken and bleeding fingernails dragged down an asylum wall. Deceiving others and for a long time himself that this prose was worth dying for. Much of it unintelligible, indecipherable, unfathomable, unforgivable.” His hygiene: “Hair grown long, coppery-gray straggling to his shoulders, perpetual three-days’ beard” and “(hot, seething) armpits.” His taste: “Scornful of confessional writing by female scribblers but his own scribbles, unique to him as the DNA of his own piss, are something else.”
From a more forgiving angle, I think Oates also picked the subject matter because it was flush with some long-standing fascinations. “The Suicide,” in structure and tone, is fairly similar to her harsh treatment of Hitchcock via Tippi Hedren in “Fat Man My Love” (a short story published in 2004), and the content resembles “Last Days” (the title story of her 1984 collection), which follows Rhodes Scholarship rejectee Saul Morgenstern’s final movements as he dutifully prepares an explanatory trail of letters, phone calls, and notes before assassinating his rabbi (suicide to follow). As in “Zero-Sum,” much of the humor in “Last Days” comes from how bad and embarrassing the postscript to a life cut short can be. Morgenstern plagiarizes heavily, cribbing from Camus, Sartre, and Bob Dylan. We laugh at his pretension, but Oates has a point: Misguided and half-baked ideas are often, when backed by the (supposed) sincerity of suicide, mistaken for genius, and Saul’s demented final thoughts are duly pored over and exalted. If an artist is prepared to die for their work, then, post hoc, a great deal of leeway can be extended to the final product.
In her 1981 essay “The Art of Suicide,” Oates took this on less obliquely: “It is a consequence of the atrophying of the creative imagination: the failure of the imagination, not to be confused with gestures of freedom, or rebellion, or originality, or transcendence. To so desperately confuse the terms of our finite contract as to invent a liberating Death when it is really brute, inarticulate Deadness that awaits — the ‘artist’ of suicide is a groping, blundering, failed artist, and his art-work a mockery of genuine achievement.” So, perhaps, Wallace partisans shouldn’t take this personally. The outsize acclaim for writers who abruptly opt out of their careers/lives understandably irks Oates, who has generously continued to live and to write (she has some choice words for Sylvia Plath in that suicide essay). But there is no contradiction in appreciating her virtuosity and being attached to the too-few works Wallace left behind. Maybe Oates, with her focus on zero-sum thinking, is daring to reveal some of her own. ❖
Gideon Leek is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.