The woman thought, That isn’t a dog. It’s a human being on its hands and knees! Such surreal thoughts bombarded the woman’s brain, waking and sleeping. As long as no one else knew about them, she paid them little heed.
Name: Joyce Carol Oates
Born: June 16, 1938 (aged 77)
Most Recent Publication: The Man Without a Shadow
Joyce Carol Oates is a name many avid readers are familiar with. She’s widely considered a literary titan. Famous for her lurid, psychologically probing style, she’s published over forty works and has, according to Robert Phillips of The Paris Review, “three publishers—one for fiction, one for poetry and a ‘small press’ for more experimental work, limited editions, and books her other publishers simply cannot schedule.”
The story I’m recommending is “Mastiff,” originally published on July 1, 2003 in The New Yorker. I came across it on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, hosted by the magazine’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman. Louise Erdrich’s reading of the story is bookended with discussions.
“Mastiff” introduces us to a man and a woman set up by a mutual friend. They’ve been seeing each other, going on walks together, and when the story begins they’re on a hike—“a hike of such ambition” that it seems “something quite different” to the woman. As you can probably infer from the title, a mastiff appears in the story that becomes an important narrative prism. The man and woman, both of whom have passed middle age, are lonely; they’ve been lonely for many years. And the two are almost hyperconscious of each other’s flaws—we have omniscient access to their criticisms and self-conscious insecurities. Oates creates sweeping but always precise and specific arcs for her characters with concision. For example: “The man was a little annoyed by the woman. Yet he was drawn to her. He hoped to like her more than he did—he hoped to adore her. He had been very lonely for too long and had come to bitterly resent the solitude of his life.”
The mastiff the two encounter on the trail attacks them, but this grotesque moment in the plot only serves to illuminate the characters’ complicated motivations and feelings. It’s a beautifully written story with a visceral, haunting effect. Furthermore, the characters are themselves never likeable in the familiar sense—they are real, deeply flawed, but somehow appealing human beings. We see ourselves in the way they think and feel and live, in the drama of their inner contradictions.