Looking at the cover of this book, you might easily delude yourself into thinking that these stories are all in some way about marital infidelity. In fact, they are not. I happened to look inside the front cover of the book, and was reminded that many years ago Ms. Oates published a collection called "Marriages and Infidelities," which in a way seems like some sort of irony. Taking a cue from the title story, "Faithless" in the middle of the book, we learn that meaning of the word here is tied to religion and a particular character's lack of belief in God, and secondarily, her supposed lack of marital fidelity. Looking at the subtitle: "Tales of Transgression", we might think of sin. If we look at the introductory quote from Pascal to the entire collection, you get a further clue, " When one does not love too much, one does not love enough." So, what ties these 22 very different stories together? Where do the characters fail or go awry, as most of them do? Is it lack of faith in God, sinning against an individual or society, being dangerously devoted to a misguided cause or belief, or a simple lack of inner strength?
Sometimes the stories are slices of life, the simple grinds, the fears of ordinary everyday life. Example: The daily routine of an unloved and lonely young waitress. Others go deeper and darker, touching on chilling family secrets and contemporary societal evils, from a suspicious disappearance of a wife and mother, to euthanasia, to a planned murder by a spurned lover, and to the physical violation of an undercover TV reporter. These are just a few.
What is exciting and what elevates Ms. Oates' stories are that they invite endless speculation and don't give up automatic answers. The only common thread is Ms. Oates' consistent and enduring style, very similar to her other collections, yet managing to sound fresh. These are never comforting, lighthearted or heartwarming bedtime stories. There is always a nervous precision edge, a razor-sharp tone that accurately finds its mark, causing the reader's heart to palpitate. Once again, Joyce Carol Oates is in top form with this new group of short stories.