I am a diehard fan of Joyce Carol Oates’ short fiction; her ability to craft clean, crisp narratives out of the darkest, dingiest settings and themes always leaves me in awe. Her collection I Am No One You Know (2004) is another top-notch array of dark fiction tales on par with her latter creepfests The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares (2011) and High Crime Area: Tales of Darkness and Dread (2014).
Two themes run throughout Oates’ work: class tension and violent crime, and I Am No One is no different. “Curly Red” examines an adolescent girl’s choice whether to turn in her brothers after they commit an assault that results in an innocent man’s demise, while “The Instructor” follows a college professor as she fixates on a paroled convict in her introductory writing course (a similar storyline would manifest in High Crime Area’s title story; it’s no surprise that Oates taught college English for decades). In “The Girl with the Blackened Eye,” the only survivor of a serial rapist and murderer looks back on her experience, in “The Deaths: An Elegy,” the daughter of parents who died in a murder-suicide grapples with the past when her brother tracks her down many years later, and in “The Skull: A Love Story,” a forensic scientist visits the mother of a homicide victim whose identity he helped decipher. The creepy subtlety imbrued in this last piece’s conclusion displays Oates’ talent at its finest.
What I enjoy most about Oates’ short fiction is this expertise in crafting unique, haunting voices in her protagonists. The strongest stories in the collection are the ones where this gift is most prominent: “Wolfie & Me, 1979,” a tale of a young man’s nontraditional coming-of-age under the guidance of his self-medicating, nomadic mother; “Fire,” which follows a woman who, after returning to her hometown to bury her father, realizes that she’s “dead inside. I’m a dead woman”; and “Aiding and Abetting,” a story of a young mother and her mentally ill brother that culminates in an unsettling, Twilight Zone-esque ending that will make any parent hug their children a little tighter after reading.
So many of Oates’ characters are broken, but they know they are broken, and the reader’s pleasure comes from watching them continue to break their pieces into smaller and smaller fragments. As the main character in “Happiness” explains, it is “the story of what I saw but had not seen. And what I had not seen, I would see and tell myself all my life.” The characters in I Am No One You Know are so deeply saturated with their sins, their flaws anchor them to unavoidable destinies, like people willingly trapped in a runaway train car barreling headlong into a brick wall. However, their brief journeys are terrible beauties from which the reader cannot look away.