Monday, 27 April 2009

31. Joyce Carol Oates - 'Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?' (1966)

'The carpet, too, is moving under you
And it's all over now, Baby Blue.'

From Gilbert's study in impressionism to a pop art projection here. Apparently inspired by 'It's All Over Know, Baby Blue' (1965) and dedicated 'For Bob Dylan', this won a US short-story prize in its following year. It might be compared with the Allingham I covered last week, a somewhat younger woman in more ambiguous, yet possibly more frightening jeopardy.

The allure of the highway, the American way to... where? Here, there is not infinite promise, but a distinct threat attached to the going away. Connie, a fairly average fifteen year-old, thinks herself in control of a rather aimlessly itinerant (within set perameters) life - much idealised at the time and since. Enjoying casual teenage liaisons and yet clinging on within the home environment. The social side of her life - the going out with boys and girl-friends - is 'this one good thing' for her, which comes to haunt her. This story subverts all of this, with the ironically named Arnold Friend invading home territory, with parents and family away. There is a slight premonition of Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) in the collision of worlds: picket-fenced normality and alluring, yet possibly deadly, low-life.

Connie's personality is still forming, with its vague dreams embodied by pop music of the time:

'She and that girl and occasionally another girl went out several times a week, and the rest of the time Connie spent around the house—it was summer vacation—getting in her mother s way and thinking, dreaming about the boys she met. But all the boys fell back and dissolved into a single face that was not even a face but an idea, a feeling, mixed up with the urgent insistent pounding of the music and the humid night air of July.'

She is listening to the radio when Arnold Friend and Ellie pull up at her house; Friend has been at the restaurant where Connie was previously enjoying a date - saying 'Gonna get you, baby'. His attire and bearing is similar to all but he does not quite fit, somehow:

'She stared at Arnold Friend. He stood there so stiffly relaxed, pretending to be relaxed, with one hand idly on the door handle as if he were keeping himself up that way and had no intention of ever moving again. She recognized most things about him, the tight jeans that showed his thighs and buttocks and the greasy leather boots and the tight shirt, and even that slippery friendly smile of his, that sleepy dreamy smile that all the boys used to get across ideas they didn't want to put into words. She recognized all this and also the singsong way he talked, slightly mocking, kidding, but serious and a little melancholy, and she recognized the way he tapped one fist against the other in homage to the perpetual music behind him. But all these things did not come together.'

A chameleon, a chancer, a charmer, Friend appropriately assumes the voice of the radio DJ; a man of thirty living a charade, dressing as and claiming to be a teenager. Oates' descriptions mark him out almost as a Lynchian devil:

'Then he began to smile again. She watched this smile come, awkward as if he were smiling from inside a mask. His whole face was a mask, she thought wildly, tanned down to his throat but then running out as if he had plastered make-up on his face but had forgotten about his throat.'

This story expresses the all-American macabre, the flipside of youth freedom and pop cultural tropes; the sense that you can go up to anyone and ask 'do you fancy a ride?' I should mention Oates' facility with ratcheting up the tension; this is at times a gut-wrenching read, evoking the end of a sort of innocence. It is notably ambivalent about Connie; she is discernibly no angel, but clearly not deserving of this bullying, disturbing Friendly attention.


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