In “Dis Mem Ber and Other Stories of Mystery and Suspense,” Joyce Carol Oates sticks to familiar themes: The violence that comes from class tensions, rural poverty, sexual abuse and the trials and tribulations of a female experience of adolescence. In her stories, deep rooted misogynistic tendencies that are slow to boil can be just as poisonous, if not more so, than an outright spitting hatred. The stories are shaved to the bone and razor-sharp.
“This makes me giggle. Nobody talks to girls my age the way Rowan Biliet does when there are no adults to hear. Giggling like I am being tickled with hard fast fingers. It is unsettling and exciting and makes my heart quicken but not in a happy way.” In the title story, Jill, a reticent yet clever child, is drawn to an older male relative in spite of herself and all the warnings she’s received against him. These warnings are never quite clear — no one will tell Jill what exactly is wrong with Rowan, and she feels uncomfortable asking anyway — so she swallows her uneasiness one day and climbs into his Chevy upon his less than friendly request.
This story cuts to the heart of that prickly feeling you get when you know something is wrong, but you can’t quite articulate why; when a male family member stands too close, or whispers things that are “just jokes,” but only when no one else is around or is looking the other way. It reveals just how secrecy and shame can lead to a silence that is heard by an entire town, an angry silence that comes from protecting someone’s memory after they’re gone, even if their transgressions were never confessed, forgiven or repented.
In “The Drowned Girl,” a university transfer student becomes obsessed with the likely murder of another female student that no one will talk about. As her own trajectory begins to shadow that of the drowned girl, she begins to frantically grasp at the clues that always seem to be just outside her reach, on the verge of discovering a possible conspiracy affecting low-income students.
The final story, “Welcome to Friendly Skies” is the most bold; it feels especially timely after all the airline drama over the past couple months. A group of bird watchers and environmentalist activists are on an overbooked flight to Alaska. The flight attendant narrator — who is oblivious, unhinged or uncaring, though deliberately cheerful — goes over seat belts, emergency exits, oxygen masks and life vests. The story is masterfully crafted, revealing the escalating alarm of passengers without ever once showing them or hearing them; the entire tale is told only through that usually monotonous flight attendant spiel. The dark undercurrents in all of the stories veer dangerously close to the surface, almost reaching it in the deadly final one.