Tuesday 31 January 2012

Strange Story #3: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?

Wheel of Love and Other Stories

Strange Story #3: Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
 Collected In: The Wheel Of Love; High Lonesome (New & Selected Stories)

I'm not coming in that house after you... but you are coming out here. You know why?

One of the reasons I'm not entirely happy with 'weird' as a term for the kind of stories I want to discuss is that it seems to exclude any realism, anything non-supernatural; an exclusion I don't think is justified.

That said, I'm not entirely sure Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? is necessarily a work of realism either. But unlike the previous stories discussed, it certainly could be read as such, and it comes from an author with pedigree as a writer of realism; of literature. Oates strikes me as one of the best short story writers out there, and her 'best of' High Lonesome (in which this story appears) is a largely realistic (although dark) affair. Some of her stories are closer to horror or crime than standard literature, but  Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? straddles the line between, I think.

It tells the stories of Connie, an American teenager, chaffing against the restrictions of being young. She goes out with her girlfriends to the mall, the drive-in... where there are boys watching. One time she is walking with one of the boys, when another - maybe older? - meets her gaze.

"Gonna get you, baby" he says.

Some days later this boy turns up in his car at her house (although Connie doesn't immediately recognise him). He says his name is 'Arnold Friend' and he and his companion want to take Connie for a ride; Arnold has decided Connie is the girl for him. By a combination of hipster talk and later, veiled threats, Arnold tries to persuade Connie to come with him.

She's at first somewhat flattered and intrigued, but gradually realises Arnold Friend may not be all he claims to be. He is like someone doing an impression of the boys Connie is interested in, and a bad one: he looks older than he claims, and the first sign of his anger is when Connie asks his age. He might be wearing a wig, and his use of teenage slang is slightly off and scattershot. Even weirder: 

One of his boats was at a strange angle, as if his foot wasn't in it.

Despite this accumulation of odd detail, there's nothing Arnold Friend says or does that necessarily tips the story over into the realms of the supernatural - Arnold could just be a perv-y middle-aged man. He may be planning to force Connie into doing something she doesn't want to, to rape her, to kill her even... but he's just a man. Surely.

Just a man, despite the odd things he knows. Despite the way he insists Connie must come to him. And despite the fact that she does.

Because Connie, in the end, does go for a ride with Arnold Friend, whoever he is. And whatever he has planned for her will happen, and whatever it is, Connie knows she has finally left her constricted teenager life behind her. 

She was hollow with what had been fear.

Because what is truly scary and weird about this story is that Connie does open the door and go to him, and whether he is the Devil, whether he is Death (a metaphor Jim Breslin uses in his discussion of the story here) or whether he's just a crazy sex fiend almost doesn't matter. He has come for his girl on her "day set aside for riding [with him]" and, like he said she would, she goes with him. It almost doesn't matter who he is, although it's hard not to wonder.

"Don't you know who I am?" he asks her, and we never get an answer. 

Next Week: Strange Stories #4. What's He Building? by Tom Waits


William & Pamela Deen said...

Does weird truly exclude realism? There are many events within our world, and denizens, that would fall into the category of word. For example, the mind of a serial killer (or sociopathic criminals as a whole).

On the surface, Arnold appears to be a predator. Perhaps being a social outcast is an explanation for his behavior and demeanor?

In any case, I enjoyed your post and thanks for sharing the wonderful points to ponder.

James Everington said...

Hi - you're right, there's different definitions of 'weird' I guess. But talking strictly in terms of literary classification, I wouldn't say a serial killer makes s story 'weird' per se. Scary, but they don't shake my world-view or leave any lingering questions...

Whereas Arnold Friend does.