Art and arson, the poetry of D. H. Lawrence and pulp pornography, hero-worship and sexual debasement, totems and taboos—out of narrative elements like these National Book Award-winner Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most adroit voices in contemporary American fiction, contrives a startling, suspenseful tale that turns the sunny idyll of New England college campus life into a lurid nightmare.
A bright, talented junior at Catamount College in the druggy 1970s, Gillian Brauer strives to realize more than a poet’s craft in her workshop with the charismatic, anti-establishment professor Andre Harrow. For Gillian has fallen in love—with Harrow, with his aesthetic sensibility and bohemian lifestyle, with his secluded cottage on Brierly Lane, with the mystique of his imposing, russet-haired French wife, Dorcas. A sculptress, Dorcas has outraged the campus and alumnae with the crude, primitive, larger than life-sized wooden totems that she has exhibited under the motto “WE ARE BEASTS AND THIS IS OUR CONSOLATION.”
As if mesmerized, Gillian enters the rarefied world of the Harrows. She surrenders to their cassoulets, Quaaludes, and intimacies. She is special, even though she knows her classmates Marisa and Sybil and the exotic, mysterious Dominique have preceded her here. She is helpless, she is powerful. And she will learn in full the meaning of Dorcas’s provocative motto.
I love you, rotten,
. . . wonderful are the hellish experiences,
Dionysos of the Underworld.
D.H. Lawrence, “Medlars and Sorb-Apples”
from Birds, Beasts and Flowers
“Gillian, do you believe in evil?”
Penelope spoke quietly. Almost, I might have pretended I hadn’t heard.
It was four P.M. of Friday, December 16. The campus was emptying out. After a flurry of activity, Heath Cottage was nearly deserted. In the downstairs lounge Penelope and I stood at the window, waiting for her parents to arrive from Old Saybrook, Connecticut, to drive her home for the holidays. We were watching a languid snowfall.
The pretense was that, early next morning, I was taking a train to New York. To my mother.
“Evil? No.” I spoke quickly, embarrassed.
“Not in the old way. I don’t think so.”
“What’s the ‘old way’?”
I wasn’t sure. But I needed to speak. Andre Harrow would have been furious with me if I’d kept silent.
I said, “God and Satan. ‘Good’ and ‘evil.’ A supernatural principle.”
“There’s no evil, without the supernatural?” Penelope crinkled her forehead. Her fair, moon-shaped face was comically incongruous with her theological concern.
I recalled that Penelope, in our Intro to Philosophy class, freshman year, never grasped the fundamental fact that logic has nothing to do with truth, only with premises. I’d tutored her, but her final grade was C+.
I said, “In the Bible, Satan is the father of lies, and of all evil. In our world, ‘evil’ just seems to be something people do out of their own self-interest, and others object. What’s ‘good’ is what our side does.”
Penelope said sharply, “It’s that simple?”
- Booklist, October 1, 2001, p. 300
- Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2001, p. 1387
- Library Journal, October 1, 2001, p. 143
- Publisher’s Weekly, October 22, 2001, p. 43
- New Leader, January / February 2002, pp. 28-29
- Los Angeles Times, January 3, 2002, p. E3
- Boston Herald, January 6, 2002, p. 46
- New York Times Book Review, January 6, 2002, p. 16
January 20, 2002, sec. Features, p. 7F
- Washington Post, January 20, 2002, p. T10
- New York Review of Books, February 14, 2002, p. 15
- InformationWeek, February 18, 2002, p. 83
- Marvels & Tales, October 2002, pp. 313-315