Thursday, September 07, 2017

"Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" (1966)

Read story by Joyce Carol Oates online.

It's hard to imagine this strange, disturbing, and wonderfully exhausting story by Joyce Carol Oates coming from any other time than the 1960s—and it's also interesting to note, in passing, how few stories in this survey (only six of 125) are from the tumultuous period. In fact, though this story appears in two of the anthologies I'm looking at, it's the only '60s story in either of them published later than 1964. It's perfectly straightforward about what it is, a story about a girl of 15, coming into her sexuality but still easily manipulated by more experienced adults. Her name is Connie and she is just learning she can break away from her parents and conduct a life of her own. On the day of this story, she has declined to accompany her father, mother, and older sister on a daylong jaunt to the town picnic, which leaves her alone in the house, luxuriating in her freedom and solitude. But before long a car pulls up in the driveway with two strange men who want to talk to her. They are Arnold Friend, who does most of the talking, and Ellie, who listens to a transistor radio held to his ear and occasionally asks alarming questions such as, "You want me to pull out the phone?" They are obviously up to no good and they are bent on luring her out of the house and into their car for a ride. Arnold knows all kinds of things about Connie: her name, that she is alone there for the day, and other details. Very little is explained. We simply follow the strange and persevering conversation as it presses forward. Our minds begin to spin in different directions. Are they going to rape her and turn her out? Is it possible it's all innocent somehow? Except: "You want me to pull out the phone?" Oates herself seemed to have thrill killers in mind, as she said the story was inspired by an Arizona serial killer, Charles Schmid. The story is also dedicated to Bob Dylan, which Oates has said was because of his song "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." It's a slightly jarring element in an otherwise nearly flawless story about predators in action—based on imagination more than research, I suspect, which unmoors it slightly. Yet at the same time that makes it more fevered and unnerving. Bob Dylan may have felt right in 1966 but now I think her story belongs more to, say, Roy Orbison. (I'm sure that has everything to do with Smooth Talk, the intriguing 1985 movie version of this story, directed by Joyce Chopra, with Treat Williams and Laura Dern.) I've never got far with attempts to read Oates—I'm not even sure why exactly—but this story is great, gnawingly worrisome to read, provoking anxiety hours and days later. You want to know more about these people, not least what happened. But you never can. It's genuinely haunting.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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