“The woman hadn’t told the man much about her past. Not yet. And possibly wouldn’t. Her principle was Never reveal your weakness. Especially to strangers: this was essential. Technically, the woman and the man were “lovers,” but they were not yet intimate. You might say—the woman might have said—that they were still, fundamentally, strangers to each other.”
Published in 2013 and written by the prolific Joyce Carol Oates, “Mastiff” centers on a man and a woman who have a traumatic encounter with a violent dog. I listened to this short story on The New Yorker fiction podcast everyday throughout the week leading up to my senior thesis deadline. Each time that I revisited this story, I, as both an emerging writer and enthusiastic reader, marvelled at how seamlessly the prose, economical but powerful, lurid even, unravels the complexity of these characters and their attitudes towards one another. In awe, I witnessed again and again how Oates expands on the immense significance of a single event between a small group of people–significance that arises more so from psychological transformation than it does from action.
On the outset, it all seems simple enough: a man and a woman–whom the narrator actually refers to as “the man” and “the woman”–are on a hiking date, one warm day in late March. But as you read on, you’ll discover that despite their physical intimacy, they are complete strangers to one another. (Hence, the exclusion of names.) You’ll find that they are both lonely, desperately seeking love and attraction–a desire dampened by their increasingly apparent aversions to one another. The man is annoyed by how unprepared the woman is for the hike. The woman can’t stand how obsessed the man is with his camera. And yet, they cling onto one another for the very possibility of companionship. Oates treats perspective as fluid, slyly shifting from one point of view to the other, allowing us to peek at the interiority of each character.
At first, I regarded my relationship to this story as somewhat educational. I saw Joyce Carol Oates as my teacher, demonstrating through her story lessons on craft and technique. Perhaps this is because I fell in love with it as I was putting the final touches on my senior thesis (a 91-page novella)–a week of intensive writing and editing, a week revolving around literary construction.
However, after more reflection, I’ve realized that my connection to this story is a lot more personal and human than that. I too have found myself in relationships because I simply did not want to be alone…because I wanted so badly to love and be loved, to the point at which my partner, as a living and breathing person, seemed almost…irrelevant. Arbitrary. In these relationships, I dedicated myself wholly to the feeling, the experience, of desire. It takes shared trauma to push the man and woman in Oates’s story towards something more. But sometimes that doesn’t happen; sometimes there is no catalyst for true connection between two people. This murky middle territory, in which the partners inhabit the roles of both stranger and lover, that interests me the most, perhaps because it is the most inexplicable dynamic.
Joyce Carol Oates’s “Mastiff” will draw you into a grey area that seems to define the man and woman’s relationship, and it will compel you to wonder what it means to truly connect with, care for, and love another person.